What we learned
Ohio State refuses to lose; Memphis shows cajones
Posted: Friday March 23, 2007 1:44AM; Updated: Friday March 23, 2007 5:00PM
SAN ANTONIO -- Five things we learned on Thursday (when we weren't catching up with our old pal Uncle Wes):
1. Ohio State rallied more than Tennessee choked. Granted, there was plenty of both in the Buckeyes' remarkable comeback from a 20-point first-half deficit to beat the Volunteers 85-84. Tennessee played right into OSU's hands by jacking up threes early in the shot clock, and I've rarely seen such pronounced bad body language and looks of terror on a team as its big lead melts away. That said, Mike Conley and Ron Lewis were absolute pillars of leadership in the second half for Ohio State. Conley made all the right moves (and only one turnover) in setting up the comeback, and Lewis merely continued his March star turn with 25 big ones. Who knows how good the Buckeyes will be once Greg Oden (9 points, 3 boards in 18 foul-plagued minutes) turns back into the real Greg Oden?
2. It's time to stop slagging on Memphis. I was as guilty as anyone of questioning Memphis' No. 2 seed and Conference-USA "pedigree," and I'll admit that I thought the Tigers would not only lose to Texas A&M but perhaps lose big. Yet John Calipari's guys showed some serious cojones in their 65-64 win in front of the Aggies' rabid home crowd. You want tough? Chris Douglas-Roberts plays on a sprained ankle and somehow becomes a huge factor (15 points). You want poise? Antonio Anderson steps to the line for two free throws with his team down one and three seconds left -- and nails them both. Maybe those Bob Rotella visualizing drills really do work on free throws. (Just to make sure we knew what was going on, Anderson grabbed his nether regions, Sam Cassell-style, after the final horn. Classic.)
3. Kansas-UCLA is the best regional final in years. Not since Michigan State beat Iowa State in 2000 (in the Larry Eustachy ejection game) has a regional final matchup been as delicious as the one coming on Saturday between the Jayhawks and Bruins. Remember: UCLA was aiming to be the tournament's overall top seed until it lost to Cal in the Pac-10 tournament and fell all the way to a No. 2 seed. As for the Jayhawks, they certainly got a scare against Southern Illinois, but Kansas fans have to be confident after surviving a game that was played entirely at SIU's pace. The amazing thing is this: a potential East final between UNC and Georgetown would be just as enticing as Kansas-UCLA. Are you starting to see why a rash of opening-week upsets aren't always the greatest thing?
4. Tubby Smith is a smart guy. By leaving Kentucky on his own terms to take over at Minnesota, Smith showed a perfect sense of timing. It was clear that a large portion of Big Blue fans would never accept Smith despite all the success he's had in Lexington over the past 10 seasons. Simply put, they don't deserve him. And much like Herb Sendek, who finally got so tired of his hysterical detractors at N.C. State that he skedaddled for Arizona State, Smith decided enough was enough. Imagine that: It isn't all about the money. (Good on UK, though, if the administration goes ahead and gives Smith the $1.5 million loyalty bonus that he was supposed to earn for staying through April 3.)
5. "This year's George Mason" is Bob Rotella. The noted sports motivational guru worked extensively with Jim Larranaga's team during its miracle Final Four run last year, and now his free-throw visualization exercises with Memphis have the Tigers within a game of Atlanta. If one of Rotella's golf protégés wins the Masters in a couple weeks, then we'll know the guy is charmed.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl covers college basketball for the magazine and SI.com.