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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Five Storylines: South Regional

Five storylines: South Regional

By David Fox, College Basketball Staff Writer

Old meets new in the South bracket. Or in the case of Greg Oden, some of the new just look old.

With freshmen likely to have a major impact on this year's tournament, all eyes will be on Ohio State. Thad Matta's 2006 signing class features the top prospect in the class in Oden along with point guard Mike Conley Jr..

Oden and Conley aren't the only fresh faces in the San Antonio bracket. With freshman twins Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez sneaking into the field, Oden won't even be the only seven-foot defensive whiz in the region.

But Oden and Conley have plenty of days ahead of them for tournament success. Texas A&M's Acie Law, Virginia's J.R. Reynolds, Nevada's Nick Fazekas and Creighton's Nate Funk are seniors looking to end their careers with some good tournament memories.

We'll take a look at those topics and others in the Top Five Storylines in the South Region

Is the Thad Five the new Fab Five? Michigan's Fab Five went to back-to-back title games in 1992 and '93. Thad Matta's 2006 signing class will try to accomplish the same feat in 2007. Regardless of what happens in this tournament, don't expect the entire Thad Five to return next season. This is probably the only time Matta will have all five on the roster. Center Greg Oden is a good bet to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft if he declares after this season.

The top two freshmen on Ohio State enter the tournament playing as well as they have all season. Oden averaged 17 points and 12.3 rebounds in the Big Ten tournament. Point guard and former high school teammate Mike Conley Jr. averaged 14 points and six assists during the run to the title. Daequan Cook's production has tapered since the start of the conference schedule, and Othello Hunter and David Lightly contribute to the bench. The Thad Five doesn't have the flash of the Fab Five, but is in position for a similar run.

In addition to the freshmen, Ohio State also has its share of storylines against the rest of the region. A potential second-round matchup will pit Matta against his old school, No. 9 seed Xavier. The Buckeyes could have an Elite Eight matchup with No. 5 seed Tennessee, who lost to Ohio State 68-66 in Columbus on Jan. 13.

The bottom right corner of your bracket taunts you with three unknown quantities. What should you make of No. 2 seed Memphis, No. 7 seed Nevada and No. 10 seed Creighton?

Led by guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis coasted through the Conference USA regular season and tournament. The Tigers are on a streak of 23 wins over C-USA opponents. We haven't seen Memphis tested regularly against top competition since November and December. The Tigers' last win over a tournament team came on Feb. 17 against No. 8 seed Gonzaga. Before that, it was on Nov. 22 against No. 8 seed Kentucky. Memphis' toughest opponent wasn't another team or player, however. It was the free-throw line. The Tigers made 61.5 percent of their free throws to rank 314th in the country.

In forward Nick Fazekas, Nevada has the top player of the three teams and possibly the whole region. As a freshman, Fazekas was on the Wolf Pack's 10th-seeded team that went to the Sweet 16 in 2004. However, he lost as a fifth seed to Montana in the first round as a junior. Nevada also hasn't played top competition. Of its four games against opponents in NCAA field, three were conference games. The other was a road win over Gonzaga.

No. 11 seed Creighton wasn't part of the Missouri Valley's emergence in last year's NCAA tournament. Its star player, guard Nate Funk, redshirted last season because of shoulder surgery. Creighton has never won more than two games in the NCAA tournament.

The Cardinals lucked out by starting the NCAA Tournament with a de facto home game against No. 11 seed Stanford in Lexington, Ky., a drive of less than 80 miles from campus. Will the Kentucky faithful grab all the tickets to cheer against their rival and former coach Rick Pitino? Or will a possible home crowd help Louisville to a couple of upsets?

Don't look for potential second-round opponent Texas A&M to complain publicly about Louisville's possible homecourt advantage. If the Aggies make it to the Sweet 16, they'll head back to San Antonio for the regional semifinals and final.

If fourth-seeded Virginia and fifth-seeded Tennessee advance to the second round, it will set up one of the best guard matchups of the tournament.

The Cavaliers' Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds both averaged more than 17 points per game. The Associated Press SEC player of the year Chris Lofton averaged more than 20 points per game during the regular season for the Volunteers. Both teams rely heavily on their guard play, so it could become a three-man show in the second round.

Virginia and Tennessee aren't the only teams with standout guards. Texas A&M point guard Acie Law hit more timely baskets than anyone else in the region. Xavier point guard Drew Lavender emerged in the second half of the season. Conley, Douglas-Roberts and Funk are also top options for their respective teams.

Despite losing its first game in the conference tournament, Stanford was the sixth Pac-10 team to make the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal is paired with No. 6 seed Louisville in the first round. The Cardinal is one of only two teams in the field that didn't win 20 games during the regular season. The other is Miami (Ohio), who won the MAC tournament. At No. 65, Stanford also has the lowest RPI of any at-large team in the tournament.

So how did this team get here? The selection committee put a lot of weight on the Pac-10's round-robin schedule. The balanced schedule gave Stanford the opportunity to beat UCLA, Washington, Oregon and USC through the course of the year – though it lost to the same four on the road.

Don't count Stanford out, however. The Cardinal is also banking on the return of guard Anthony Goods from a high ankle sprain. Stanford closed the season on a 1-3 slide without Goods. He returned to score 19 points with five assists against USC in the conference tournament.

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