It's a mixed bag of teams in Texas

Posted: March 22, 2007

SAN ANTONIO - Welcome to the NCAA South Regional, where the third seed, for whatever reason, owns the home-state edge.

Even though nobody seeded lower than No. 5 Tennessee is feasting on authentic Tex-Mex, it's a regional lacking recent pedigree. The East has North Carolina. The Midwest has the defending national champion. The West has the defending runner-up, as well as a Kansas club that's probably playing better than anyone right now.

And can anyone from the selection committee explain why Ohio State got sent here, possibly to play Texas A&M on Saturday, and Florida is in St. Louis? Guess geography isn't a prerequisite for placing top seeds. Yet folks question Greg Oden's curriculum choices. Makes you wonder about the purpose of pods.

"We'd like to be closer to home, but we honestly don't care," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, choosing his thoughts carefully. "I'm kind of excited. I've never been here. So [Tuesday] night was awesome. We enjoyed walking around the city.

"You always want your fans to have the luxury to be here. But I can imagine how hard it is to pick the teams that get in the tournament, let alone where to put them. We have a huge alumni base in Texas. Some of them met us at the hotel. We'll be well-represented."

But we digress. This is a regional of big-time football schools, except for second-seeded Memphis.

Start with Ohio State. The Buckeyes finished the regular season atop the polls. Which, of course, means nothing now. Still, it's the first time they've officially advanced this far since 1992, when they lost in overtime in the Final Eight to Michigan's Fab Five. In 1999 they reached the Final Four, but that's been expunged from the books because of recruiting violations. The point is, they won the title in 1960, and lost to Cincinnati in the title game each of the next 2 years. Since then, it's been mostly barren.

By the way, the Buckeyes haven't lost since Jan. 9. Their three losses are to North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin. They've lost twice with Oden in the lineup, one when he was just coming back from his right-hand injury. The Buckeyes, of course, should have lost last Saturday to Matta's old team, Xavier, which somehow forgot to foul at the end of regulation and paid for it in overtime.

Memphis, of course, was a power back in the day. Lost to UCLA in the 1973 final. Lost to Villanova in the 1985 semifinals, when it was still called Memphis State. Even made it into a regional final in 1992. Then the Tigers kind of went away, until John Calipari rode into town and performed mouth-to-mouth. Last March, they made it to the Final Eight, as a No. 1 seed. Their reward? Getting UCLA in Oakland. Now they have drawn a lower-seeded Texas A&M program "Deep in the Heart of . . .", in the opening act of tonight's Sweet 16 doubleheader at the Alamodome.

Did we mention that the Tigers have won 24 straight?

"It's a man-up game," said Calipari, who nearly won a national title in 1996 with Massachusetts. "If you're not sturdy, [the Aggies] will push you right into the cheerleaders. You'll have a pom-pom in your hand pretty fast.

"I would hope for the first time in their lives I see orange jerseys cheering for us. And Memphis fans cheering for Tennessee. Maybe even singing that song. What's the name of that song ['Rocky Top']? It'll be fun for you to watch, but not for me to coach."

Fair enough. What's not is that he might not have his best player, Chris Douglas-Roberts, who sprained his left ankle in their last game.

"Being at home is an advantage, no question," Calipari said. "But there's another side of it. I've been there, too. The most pressure I ever felt as a coach was playing Boston College on a neutral court [while at UMass]. We had 75 percent of the fans. We were supposed to win. But they had [three pros]. I woke up at 2 in the morning. Then I woke up at 4. And I woke up at 6."

Douglas-Roberts had a private practice session yesterday.

"He's doing fine. He wants to play," Calipari said. "That's the best I can tell you. If he's able to play, he will."

Tennessee's coach, Bruce Pearl, guided Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the Sweet 16 just 2 years ago. The Volunteers got this far in 2000. They also made it in 1981. Other than Pat Summit, that's pretty much it. The Ernie (Grunfeld)-and-Bernie (King) show was three decades ago.

The Vols are one of three teams left that have double-digit losses. But they almost beat Ohio State 2 months ago in Columbus.

"I don't know if that will help us," Pearl said. "We're just trying to hold up our end [at UT]."

Which brings us to A&M, which has been this far once, in 1980. Four years ago, the Aggies went 0-16 in the Big 12.

"I remember when we were freshmen, two students had bags over their heads at our game," recalled senior Acie Law. "One had '0' on it, and the other had '10,' '11,' whatever. That was the low point. Now we've got a great opportunity to be on this stage, in front of our people."

Who could really ask for much more? *

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