Mar 20, 2007 Sports Editor Uncategorized
In this second of four pieces examining the NCAA Tournament at the Sweet 16 point, we now turn to the South Regional, where the top seed is lucky to still be around — and the no. 3 seed will feel right at home.
Never mind that spot at the top of the polls. Ohio State needed everything to break right at the end of regulation against Xavier, following its first-round romp of Central Connecticut State.
Having already subdued BYU in Lexington, the Musketeers led by nine with less than three minutes of play. Sensing the end, the Buckeyes pressed, hit some 3-pointers, and were within two as the clock in regulation wound down.
What followed will linger with Xavier fans for a long, long time. Off a missed shot, Greg Oden fouled Justin Cage hard. Many would say an intentional foul should have been called, all but locking up the game, and they might be right.
But the fact was that (1) Oden had fouled out, and (2) all Cage needed to do was make both of his free throws with 9.3 seconds left, and the upset would be complete.
The first shot was fine. But Cage clanged the second off the rim, and in the chaos that followed, Xavier forgot to foul anyone — giving Ron Lewis enough time to swish that tying 3-pointer. Mike Conley Jr. took over in overtime, and the Buckeyes are still around.
Now Ohio State must deal with Tennessee, a team it scraped past in January in Columbus. The Volunteers returned to that fair city last weekend to dump 121 points on Long Beach State. After romping through Albany, Virginia could not survive a tense affair with the Vols as Chris Lofton’s four clutch free throws pulled his team through.
To win the rematch with the Buckeyes, Tennessee must push the tempo to keep Oden from establishing himself inside. If it’s close at the end, all the pressure will be on Ohio State, and we know Lofton can hit big shots.
But even if Bruce Pearl busts out an orange jacket, it might not be enough to stifle the wide-awake Buckeyes, who will take their quest for a first national championship since 1960 at least one step further.
Make no mistake, though — this regional is Texas A&M’s party. When you tune in Thursday night, expect to see thousands of Lone Star citizens in maroon among the crowd in San Antonio’s Alamodome, urging an Aggie conquest.
A&M had to earn this. Even though it was the no. 3 seed, the Aggies were placed in a hostile setting in Lexington, which didn’t matter against Pennsylvania in the first round — but mattered a whole lot against Louisville, who crushed Stanford.
With Rupp Arena awash in Cardinal red, A&M trailed much of the way, but with the Law (Acie, that is) on its side, the Aggies inched ahead and got that bit of fortune every champion seems to require. Louisville’s Edgar Sosa, brilliant for 39-plus minutes, missed two big free throws with 29.8 seconds left, then forced up a possible winning 3-pointer that missed the target.
In any other state, no. 2 seed Memphis would be a better choice. True, the competition in Conference USA wasn’t stiff, but the Tigers have won 24 in a row, topping North Texas and holding off a game Nevada team that needed overtime just to get past Creighton in the opening round.
A big alarm went up in New Orleans, though, when Chris Douglas-Roberts sprained his ankle late in the win over Nevada. True, Memphis is deep, balanced, athletic and unselfish, but it needs Douglas-Roberts and his multiple gifts against A&M, the toughest team (and the toughest setting) the Tigers have faced in months.
At the very least, Texas A&M will get through Memphis, leading to a ferocious regional final between the Aggies and Buckeyes. The hunch here is that A&M, just like Texas in 2003, will use the friendly (and loud) setting of the Alamodome, and the incomparable clutch play of Acie Law, to find its way to Atlanta.