Mar 13, 2007 Sports Editor Uncategorized
As we continue our twisted journey through the NCAA brackets, we cast our eyes to the South Regional, where a bearded man could push the team atop the polls toward its first national championship since 1960.
Greg Oden carried gigantic expectations when he arrived at Ohio State. And when that broken hand healed, Oden turned into a southpaw and carried the young Buckeyes to another Big Ten title. It helped, of course, to have Mike Conley Jr. at the point to lead well beyond his years. Winners of 16 in a row, Ohio State must show that its domination of a soft Big Ten can translate in rougher waters.
In Lexington, the Buckeyes first draw Central Connecticut State. Once the pride of New Britain is cast aside, a tricky Saturday date awaits, where Brigham Young or Xavier is the opposition.
BYU ruled the Mountain West in the regular season under new coach Dave Rose. And 26 years after his dad marched through Atlanta and ruined Digger Phelps’ life, Austin Ainge will try to carry on the legacy. At Xavier, the seniors have plenty of NCAA experience and are close to its Cincinnati home, a major advantage over the Utah-based Cougars.
Bruce Pearl once showed so much love for Tennessee that he painted his chest orange for a women’s game against no. 1 Duke in Knoxville.
One hopes Pearl saved some affection for Chris Lofton, a proven clutch shooter who cannot be left alone. He could shoot the Volunteers to San Antonio, at least, if it doesn’t look past Big West champion Long Beach State — and as shown in last year’s first round (against Winthrop), the Vols can’t afford to coast past the red-hot 49ers in Columbus.
Virginia’s resurgence can be traced to two things — the enthusiasm of a brand-new arena, and the presence of great senior guards.
Sean Singletary is particularly tough, and if he can overcome first-time tournament nerves, the Cavaliers should be fine against America East champion Albany. But everyone knows how Albany scared the heck out of Connecticut a year ago, and with Jamar Wilson leading the way, the Great Danes still have some bite.
How good is life for Rick Pitino? He takes Louisville from its projected spot in the Big East basement to a second-place regular-season finish, then watches the Cardinals get placed in Pitino’s old stomping grounds of Lexington for the first two rounds, insuring plenty of red in the stands at Rupp Arena.
Stanford has plenty of size to make Louisville worry, but it was not a good team down the stretch and was lucky to Dance. Look out for the singular Cardinal — in 2008. For now, it will get plenty of experience on what it’s like to play in front of a “neutral” (yeah, right) NCAA crowd.
A piece of advice for this tournament — do not mess with the Law. Texas A&M has a lot of positive attributes — a great coach in Billy Gillespie, terrific defensive presence, and experienced players without fear.
Most of all, it’s got Acie Law IV. No one in the country has hit more big shots. Whatever opponents do, it must put two or three guys on Law if the game is close at the end. And he still might drain the jumper. Perennial Ivy League champion Pennsylvania had the misfortune of drawing the Aggies on Thursday and won’t stay for long.
Nevada’s rampage through the WAC was good enough to get them into the AP Top 10 at one point this season. Any team with Nick Fazekas clogging the paint would be good, but when he was injured, guard Marsellus Kemp put up big numbers and the Wolf Pack kept winning.
Smarting from its first-round defeat to Montana a year ago, Nevada draws Creighton first, and that’s a tough assignment. The Blue Jays blazed to the Missouri Valley tournament title with hot shooting and better defense. Nate Funk is the go-to guy, ready to bring the Funk to New Orleans.
Memphis is the tournament’s biggest question mark. That’s what happens when you run the Conference USA table at 19-0 with barely a challenge. Place the Tigers in a better league, though, and it would still thrive because of its depth, athleticism and in-your-face attitude.
North Texas brings the best nickname (Mean Green) to the Dance, but little else to suggest that it can run with Memphis. Even a sweep of the opening weekend in the Crescent City will not quiet the Tigers’ critics.
Still, expect Memphis to make the trip to San Antonio. Ohio State will cruise there, too, and my hunch is that Chris Lofton is good enough to carry Tennessee to the land of the Alamo. And despite a thoroughly hostile setting, Acie Law will lift Texas A&M past Louisville to get back to its home state, where it ought to thrive even more.