Graney: Young 'Cats following Gardner's lead

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Jason Gardner for player of year?

Q: Is there any player in America playing better than Jason Gardner? -- Marcus O'Sullivan, Dallas
I'm glad you asked that. If I had to vote today for national player of the year, based on pre-conference play, I would go with Mr. Gardner. He has been absolutely brilliant as a floor general, a scorer and leader. He will be on my All-Albert Einstein team for players who made brilliant decisions by going back to school. That was the wisest choice he could make. Keith Bogans made the same decision; my gut feeling is Bogans and Gardner would have failed to make an NBA roster. By coming back, they gave themselves a chance to get better and better, improving their stock.

Wesley Stokes
Point guard Wesley Stokes and Missouri hope to make a move during March Madness this season.
Q: Missouri is a much-improved team from last year, but in your opinion do the Tigers have what it takes to make it to the Final Four? -- Jeff Harwood, Eldon, Mo.
You have to do it on both ends of the floor. You can't just rely on offensive firepower, you have to be able to stop people regularly. If Missouri defends and stays within the realm of their defensive system, they will be solid. It's important to execute a great half-court offense in the tournament, when teams get a little more conservative. You need good shot selection and you must make plays -- and this team has that potential. I love Kareem Rush, as I sang his praises the first time I saw him play, against Virginia. Rush is so sweet and so smooth. Clarence Gilbert has learned what a better shot is, not rushing and taking poor shots as often. I love Wesley Stokes with the big hairdo! He hustles, plays with such passion and he was willing to take the big shot in the win over Saint Louis. You have to be impressed with the development of Arthur Johnson inside. This is a very dangerous basketball team, and Quin Snyder has done exactly what I expected. His passion is rubbing off on all of his players.

Q: Which conference do you think will be strongest come March Madness? -- Dave, Indianapolis, Ind.
The Big 12 and the ACC. The ACC has the heavyweights. Duke and Maryland are so good; they could both return to the Final Four. I have been impressed with the balance and toughness of the Big 12. Missouri and Kansas are up top, and Oklahoma State is a legitimate top-15 team. Then there are Oklahoma and Texas; I believe the Longhorns will get better, too. Texas Tech is a Rip Van Winkle, and you have to keep an eye on them. Bob Knight is doing a great job with the Red Raiders. The Big 12 will prove to everyone it's one of the premier conferences.

Q: I'm a huge Kentucky fan, and I was wondering -- without an experienced point guard and no early sign of anyone wanting to step up, how legitimate are the Wildcats' Final Four hopes? Do you think the fans who gave Saul Smith such a tough time last year wish he were back this year? I bet they do! -- Allen Jones, Paducah, Ky.
I don't think people appreciated the effort that Saul Smith put out on the court. The kid played with such hunger and desire. What makes Kentucky less vulnerable than people realize is more than just the duo of Cliff Hawkins and J.P. Blevins. Yes, Hawkins has quickness and penetration ability and Blevins is methodical. The wings can pass the ball, and that's an important factor. By having people like Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince and Gerald Fitch all capable of handling the basketball, it offsets the tenacious pressure opposing defenses can throw out there. The 'Cats will face tenacious pressure when Louisville comes to town with, what is that guy's name ... oh, yeah, Mr. Rick Pitino! Does Louisville have the experience to offset the firepower of Kentucky?

Q: How do you think Stanford will do this year after getting hit so hard by graduation? -- Cody Cimino, Campbell, Calif.
Stanford obviously will be a good team. A lot will depend on getting consistent performances from Curtis Borchardt inside and solid point-guard play. The Cardinal suffered a tough loss at Texas when Casey Jacobsen struggled shooting the ball. This is a club that knows how to win, with a coach who understands a winning philosophy. Stanford has the top winning percentage in college basketball over the past two-plus years.

Q: Big Duke fan here: With the departure of Shane Battier, it seems the Blue Devils lack a leader on the court. Coach K also seems to be realizing this, seeing how he has been adamant about their spurts of lackadaisical play. Do you think that Jason Williams or Carlos Boozer will stand up and take the leadership role? -- Jonathan Cohen, Great Neck
Battier was certainly a special player and a leader. He was one of the greatest communicators, so you have to make up for his loss in many ways. The big four returning players have all improved. You also need help from Dahntay Jones, Daniel Ewing, Nick Horvath and Casey Sanders. When talking about Battier, he was unique, not only as a player but as a leader.

Q: Does Syracuse have what it takes to go far this year? -- Steve, New York state
I think the loss to N.C. State was a wake-up call. They are playing at a tough time, since their leader, Jim Boeheim, is out now. That makes things tougher, and the performance against the Wolfpack was sub-par. Bernie Fine has a tough job filling in for Boeheim, but I believe Bernie is up to the task. Syracuse needs its big three -- Preston Shumpert, DeShaun Williams and Kueth Duany -- to be playing really well every night. If one of them has a bad night, they can struggle against good opponents. They can get to the winner's circle if one struggles against a lesser opponent.

Q: With North Carolina struggling early this year and Matt Doherty leaning on the three freshmen in the final minutes of the Georgia Tech game, how do you think the Heels look later in the year? Do the streaks end? -- Paul Crews, Greensboro, N.C.
Obviously the Tar Heels right now are not the same team we have become accustomed to seeing over the years. Many of these kids came in with big-time resum&eactue;s out of high school. They were impressive, and these are kids who were heavily recruited. Now is the time for them to perform and live up to their expectations coming in. North Carolina needs consistency from its leaders, Jason Capel and Kris Lang. They have to really become star players this year for the team to maintain the established standards. Expectations are very high. The Tar Heels had a good win coming back against Georgia Tech, but they lost at Kentucky, where a lot of teams will leave Rupp with an L. Carolina has to protect its home turf, which it did not do early with three losses at the Dean Dome. The Heels shouldn't walk away with an L against Hampton and Davidson; I think Matt Doherty would agree with that.

Q: How good do you think Gonzaga will be this year? -- Scotty, Spokane, Wash.
Mark Few has done a solid job with this program. Any time you can go to battle with a star point guard like Dan Dickau, you have a chance to win. Just ask Jerry Tarkanian, as his Fresno State team lost to Gonzaga. This is a school that will cause problems come tournament time. Nobody will want to see their name next to Gonzaga on a draw sheet.

Q: When are you going to give the USF Bulls some respect? -- Jack Weeks, Tampa, Fla.
I gave South Florida some love during the game against Florida. I don't know what you're talking about. This has to be the year to get an NCAA berth in the Seth Greenberg era, because this is a talented team, very athletic and possesses a 1-2 punch in Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon. Reggie Kohn has helped out with long-range shooting. The Bulls ran into a five-minute spurt against Florida. Will the loss to the Gators hurt psychologically? They built up such hopes for this game, calling it the biggest in the school's history. The next game is at the Carrier Dome on Sept. 20. I hope the fans stay with this club all season long, not just for the Florida game.

Q: How is Arizona coach Lute Olson not in the Hall of Fame? -- Fan in Dallas
I don't vote for the Hall; he would obviously be in if it were my decision. There are so many candidates, and John Chaney and Mike Krzyzewski belonged in. I know one day Olson will grace the halls in Springfield. He has been a class act and a winner everywhere he has been.

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