March 22, 2007

Storylines abound in Sweet 16

There's no George Mason this year.

But the lack of a Cinderella story has only allowed other plotlines to take center stage as the NCAA Tournament gears up for its regional championships.

Thursday's games feature a coach facing his former team, an NCAA contender trying to shed its reputation as a postseason underachiever, and a rematch of a regular-season intersectional game that went down to the final seconds.

We'll follow that up Friday with one more regular-season rematch, a sequel to a memorable NCAA Tournament game from yesteryear and a showdown between two of the nation's top freshman classes.

We have coaches on the rise, conferences on the wane and contenders on the rebound.

Here's a rundown of the Sweet 16 storylines for this week's regional championships.


Ben Howland left Pittsburgh for UCLA four years ago, but the Bruins coach still has plenty of ties to his old school.

Pittsburgh's current coach is Jamie Dixon, who had worked alongside Howland at three schools (UC-Santa Barbara, Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh). Howland's daughter, Meredith, is a former Pittsburgh cheerleader who still attends nursing school there.

The Bruins now play a West Regional semifinal against Pittsburgh in the first meeting between the schools since Howland moved across the country.

"We were never going to schedule this game as a non-conference game," Howland said. "The only way Pittsburgh and UCLA are going to meet is in the NCAA Tournament. Jamie, I consider my closest friend in coaching and one of the closest friends of my lifetime. That's always hard (to coach against a friend). And I'm sure he considers me to be a good friend.''

Howland has attempted to downplay this part of the matchup as much as possible. Seniors Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall are the only Panthers he recruited.

"The players are playing the game," Howland said. "Most of the UCLA players have no history with Pittsburgh other than that they have this fat bald coach who came out here from there. And all the players from Pittsburgh except for Levon and Aaron have never even met me."


The regional semifinal pairings include two rematches.

Vanderbilt opened its season with an 86-70 home loss to Georgetown. Ohio State beat Tennessee 68-66 at home on Jan. 13 after Ron Lewis the same guy who saved the Buckeyes' season last weekend with his big shot against Xavier made a 3-pointer with 11.2 seconds remaining.

The rematches give a few players from the losing teams a chance at redemption.

Tennessee guard Chris Lofton missed the front end of a one-and one with 23.9 seconds to go and the Volunteers clinging to a one-point lead. Vanderbilt swingman Shan Foster scored just two points and failed to make a basket against Georgetown.

"I've kind of erased it from my memory," Foster said.


The East Regional semifinal between North Carolina and Southern California also represents a rematch of sorts while reuniting two former Big Eight and Big 12 coaching rivals.

North Carolina lost 74-59 at Southern California last season in its most one-sided loss last year. Lodrick Stewart and Nick Young each scored 18 points for the Trojans, who outscored North Carolina 44-24 in the second half.

"In the second half, they kicked our tails worse than anyone kicked us all year long," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "It was a nightmare ride back home. That game was right before Christmas, and it was a long ride. To look at that stat sheet for about five hours wasn't very pleasant."

That wasn't the first time Williams and Floyd had squared off.

The coaches faced each other many times in the 1990s when Williams was at Kansas and Floyd was coaching Iowa State. Williams' Kansas teams won most of the head-to-head matchups, though Floyd's Iowa State team beat the Jayhawks in the 1996 Big Eight tournament championship.

"He's a phenomenal coach," Williams said. "Everyone can say it didn't work out for him in the NBA, but college coaches get the worst jobs. There's a lot of guys who could have come to Chicago after Michael (Jordan) left and (not) done very well."


The anticipated showdown between Texas freshman phenom Kevin Durant and North Carolina's stellar freshman class won't take place.

But we'll still see two of the nation's top freshman classes on display when North Carolina meets Southern California.

USC's first-year players haven't earned as much attention as the freshman classes at Ohio State, Texas, North Carolina or Georgia Tech. But the freshmen Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett played huge roles in getting the Trojans to the Sweet 16.

Gibson has averaged 17.5 points and 11 rebounds in USC's two NCAA Tournament games. Hackett scored 20 points and was largely responsible for guarding Durant in an 87-68 victory over Texas.

Hackett wasn't supposed to play college basketball at all this season.

The former 2007 recruit graduated from high school last summer and enrolled at USC a year ahead of schedule. Hackett's early arrival allowed USC to compensate for the tragic loss of 2005-06 starting point guard Ryan Francis, who was killed in a drive-by shooting last May.

"It's been a learning process for me since Day One," Hackett said. "Guys like Lodrick (Stewart) and Nick (Young) embraced me and did a great job of explaining the situation. I'm just playing hard."


Tennessee hired Bruce Pearl two years ago after he led Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the Sweet 16. One year earlier, Thad Matta moved to Ohio State after sending Xavier to a regional final.

So it shouldn't come as any surprise that a few of this year's Sweet 16 coaches are hearing their names connected to openings at bigger schools.

UNLV's Lon Kruger, Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery and Butler's Todd Lickliter have been linked to vacancies at Michigan and Minnesota. It hardly matters that the coaches involved have dismissed speculation they're looking to move.

'That's the furthest thing from my mind," Lowery said. "I want to win with my guys.''

Kruger was even more direct in denying the rumors.

"We haven't thought about living (in Ann Arbor) or anywhere else," Kruger said. "You can scratch me off any list you want to."


Although it may have seemed as though just about every midmajor in last year's NCAA Tournament exceeded expectations, Southern Illinois was an exception to the rule.

The Salukis lost 64-46 to West Virginia in the first round and spent the rest of the postseason watching George Mason, Wichita State and Bradley grab the spotlight.

Southern Illinois has used that as motivation all season.

"It definitely inspired us," senior guard Jamaal Tatum said. "We knew we were capable of being one of those teams that made a big run to get to the Final Four or Sweet 16. We knew we had the potential to do it. When you have the potential to do something and come up short, it definitely hurts. I knew (senior guard) Tony (Young) and myself, we were motivated that this was our last chance to do it."


The clock struck midnight a couple of rounds earlier than usual for the lower-seeded teams.

For the first time since 1995, no teams seeded 10th or lower advanced to the Sweet 16. The lowest-seeded remaining team is No. 7 seed UNLV in the Midwest Region.

And you certainly can't call UNLV a Cinderella story. The Rebels got a lower-than-expected seed after being ranked 10th in the RPI listings on Selection Sunday.

College basketball fans shouldn't see this as a sign that parity has ended after last year's midmajor breakthrough. No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth and No. 9 seed Xavier nearly advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing overtime thrillers in the second round.

But it's certainly unusual to see more early-round upsets in the women's tournament than in the men's bracket.


The makeup of the Sweet 16 is good news for the Pac-10 and Southeastern Conference, which each advanced three teams to the regional semifinals.

Floyd believes this is a sign of things to come for the Pac-10.

"What's important about our league right now is that we are so positioned for dominance in the future," Floyd said. "Sixteen of the top 20 scorers in our league are back (next year). Fifteen of the top 20 rebounders are back. You have (five-star prospects) Davon Jefferson and O.J. Mayo going to our place, (five-star prospect) Kevin Love to UCLA. And (five-star prospect Jerryd) Bayless going to UCLA."

The Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten both sent only one team to the Sweet 16, though Williams disputes the notion this represents a down year for the ACC.

"I still think we have a great, great league," the North Carolina coach said. "Anyone who doesn't think it's that good, try to get a job and come coach in it.''


Although this tournament doesn't include any obvious Cinderella stories in the George Mason tradition, at least a few teams enter the regional semifinals with large chips on their shoulders.

Southern Illinois is trying to continue the Missouri Valley Conference's rise from midmajor status. Kansas wants to end its recent history of postseason collapses after losing in the first round each of the last two years.

And Memphis wants to show that its 32-3 record isn't a mere product of playing in the lightly regarded Conference USA. Memphis and Winthrop were the only teams in the nation that didn't lose a single conference game.

Memphis coach John Calipari cited the improved winning percentages and RPIs of his league rivals as evidence that Conference USA has gotten more competitive in the last year, even though the Tigers' perfect conference record suggests otherwise. Calipari even predicted that Conference USA would send three teams to the NCAA Tournament and at least two representatives to the NIT next year.

"Our league is stronger," Calipari said. "Maybe we're just better. Did anybody think of that? Maybe we're just better than a year ago. I don't know. But the league is better."


Donovan isn't the only coach who has taken Florida to the Final Four.

Florida's recent emergence as a basketball power began when UNLV's Kruger sent the Gators to the NCAA semifinals in 1994. Kruger's new team could meet his old on Sunday in the Midwest Regional championship.

The well-traveled Kruger quietly has produced a history-making season. The former Illinois, Kansas State and Florida coach has joined Lefty Driesell, Jim Harrick, Rick Pitino and Eddie Sutton as the only coaches to lead four different schools to the NCAA Tournament.

Kruger, Harrick and Sutton are the only coaches to win at least one NCAA Tournament game with four different schools.


Missed free throws have played a role in just about every NCAA Tournament game that has gone down to the wire this year.

Xavier's Justin Cage spoiled an otherwise outstanding individual performance by missing a free throw that could have clinched a victory over Ohio State. Louisville's Edgar Sosa misfired on a pair of free throws that could have given the Cardinals the lead over Texas A&M in the final minute.

Pittsburgh beat Virginia Commonwealth in overtime only after a pair of missed free throws by Levance Fields prevented the Panthers from winning in regulation. Vanderbilt squeaked past Washington State in double overtime after Alex Gordon missed two free throws to give the Cougars a chance to steal the win.

One team that hasn't been missing free throws down the stretch is Memphis, which entered the NCAA Tournament shooting just 61 percent from the foul line. The Tigers have made 73.8 percent of their free throws in two tournament games and went 26-of-34 from the line in a 78-62 second-round victory over Nevada.


Anyone who considers the Florida-Butler game a mismatch must have a short memory.

These two programs played one of the best first-round games of the last decade in 2000.

Florida needed a buzzer beater from Mike Miller to outlast Butler 69-68 in overtime. The Gators went on to reach the NCAA championship game before falling to Michigan State.

"It was one of those games where you feel bad because both teams play so hard," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Both teams seemed to deserve to win the game because it was such tough competition."


Florida has emerged as a near-unanimous favorite to win the national title because it has learned from those one-sided losses to Vanderbilt, Louisiana State and Tennessee at the end of the regular season.

In each of those games, the Gators fell way behind early and never caught up. Florida again has struggled in the first half of NCAA Tournament victories over Jackson State and Purdue, but the Gators have picked themselves up off the mat each time and have dominated the second half.

"There have been games where we have been hit in the mouth early and we weren't able to come back even after we made a run," Florida center Joakim Noah said. "We've made a lot of good comebacks in the second half, but at the same time you look at Tennessee on the road, and their punch was too strong for us to come back from.

"Those are learning experiences. We realize you can't get hit in the mouth like that, especially in the beginning of the game, because it's a 40-minute game and those runs are sometimes too hard to overcome. There's no turning back, there's no learning when you lose in this tournament. Once you lose, it's over. There's no more season. There's no more practice."


Texas A&M earned the No. 2 seed in the South Regional, but the Aggies had a second-round game with No. 7 seed Louisville in the not-so-neutral site of Lexington, Ky.

The schedule-makers have returned the favor by having the Aggies face Memphis in front of a likely partisan crowd in San Antonio.

That's not an ideal scenario for Memphis, but Calipari isn't complaining. He noted that the Tigers didn't have to go far from home to play their first two games in New Orleans.

"To play Louisville on the road in that environment, maybe they deserve now to be able to come back and play at home," Calipari said. "We had a lot of fans probably four or five thousand fans at New Orleans. It was like a home game for us and a road game for Nevada. So now we go on the road."

Memphis shouldn't gripe too much about playing in Texas. The Tigers own an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 10-1 in the Lone Star State, though none of those games involved opponents from Texas schools.

15. L.A. STORY

Southern California's run to the East Regional semifinals hasn't prevented the Trojans from playing second fiddle in their own city.

UCLA still has the edge over USC in history and current events.

The Bruins have won 11 national championships, while the Trojans haven't won any. UCLA also is the defending NCAA runner-up and swept its two regular-season meetings with USC.

"We're still underdogs, and that's great for us right now," USC junior forward Nick Young said. "Later on in the future, SC will be one of those UCLAs, North Carolinas and those teams they mention in the top five."

USC and UCLA would meet in the national championship game if each team wins its next three games.


The main injury concern in the Sweet 16 involves Memphis forward Chris Douglas-Roberts' sprained left ankle.

Douglas-Roberts insists he will play in Thursday night's South Regional semifinal. Calipari acknowledged this week that the condition of Douglas-Roberts' ankle has improved.

But that's no guarantee.

Earlier in the week, Calipari noted that he doesn't believe his team's style of play allows anyone even the team's leading scorer to go at half speed.

"You can't play in a game like this at 75 percent or 80 percent, especially the way we play him," Calipari said. "If you're breaking down defensively or (are) not able to stay with the pace of the game, you have to sit back and let these other guys go."

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