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March 31, 2008
Joey Dorsey powered Memphis into the Sweet 16, but the Tigers' mercurial star is just one of several key players left in the field who have something to prove
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March 31, 2008

Focused Group

Joey Dorsey powered Memphis into the Sweet 16, but the Tigers' mercurial star is just one of several key players left in the field who have something to prove

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Lavender played for two seasons at Oklahoma, but he transferred to Xavier in 2005 and took his hard-partying reputation with him—at least until Musketeers coach Sean Miller arranged an intervention of sorts in the spring of '06 that included Lavender's mother, Shirlene Howard. "It was really emotional," Xavier assistant James Whitford says. Lavender choked up while revealing his grief over the death of Bruce Howard, his AAU and high school coach in Columbus, Ohio. The coach died from liver failure in '03, which deeply affected Drew, who says Howard "was everything to me."

Lavender rededicated himself to hoops, and he's no longer a fixture on the party scene. "When he's playing at his very best, we can beat anyone in the country," says Miller, whose Muskies will need a top performance from their point guard against West Virginia on Thursday in Phoenix (and even more in a potential West Regional final against top-seeded UCLA).

Like Lavender, Butch suffered the emotional strain of a loved one's illness—his mother, Nancy, battled breast cancer, now in remission—a year after he shocked the Badgers faithful by deciding to redshirt his freshman season to gain strength for the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. The result: Butch didn't earn a starring role until his fifth year in Madison. "The development I've had is what [college basketball] is all about," he says. "[Redshirting] definitely paid off in the end. I would have been able to help the team [as a true freshman], but not as much as I'm helping now." Underrated all season, the Big Ten champion Badgers can return to their first Final Four since 2000 with wins this week over Davidson and either 12th-seeded Villanova or, more likely, top-seeded Kansas, one of the few teams that can match Wisconsin's size.

As Butch and Lavender know, for seniors in the NCAA tournament the phrase time running down on the clock takes on a whole new dimension. That's especially true this week for three up-and-down senior sharpshooters whose teams' fates may wobble on their (not always squared-up) shoulders. But who's to say they can't make like Memphis's Dorsey and write their own happy ending?

Tennessee's Lofton was a preseason All-America and has made more three-pointers (429) than all but two players in NCAA history, but his yo-yoing senior season continued in wins over American and Butler last week when he shot a combined 4 for 18 (and 3 for 12 from beyond the arc). Sophomore forward Tyler Smith has taken over as the Vols' go-to guy, but Lofton will have to stretch defenses with his outside shot this week for Tennessee to have any chance of beating Louisville and potentially the East's top seed, North Carolina (whose star forward Tyler Hansbrough is seeking his first Final Four—the last, indisputable argument for his player-of-the-year worthiness). "I've had two bad games," Lofton said on Sunday, "but we still survived and advanced, and that's what this tournament is about. I'm going to get some rest and then get back in the gym. That's all I can do."

Even colder is UCLA's Shipp, who admits "it would be hard" for the Bruins to win a national title if he can't shake the worst shooting slump of his career. Shipp scored 18 points in last year's Final Four loss to Florida, but he ended the '07--08 regular season on an 8-for-47 bender from three-point range. In UCLA's 51--49 second-round win over Texas A&M, Shipp missed all four of his field goal attempts, passed up several open shots and finished with zero points. The Bruins may be able to beat 12th-seeded Western Kentucky without a third credible scorer behind Kevin Love and Darren Collison, but "that won't work" in a potential regional final against Xavier or West Virginia, Love says, and he's right.

Michigan State's Neitzel is just as important to the Spartans' fortunes. If it seems as if Neitzel was born to play college basketball, that's not a stretch: His father, Craig, a high school coach, stuck a tiny goal and foam ball in his crib, and Drew learned to eat and brush his teeth with both hands, one reason he's an ambidextrous shooter. But Neitzel sometimes struggled to score with either hand this season—after winning the Big Ten player of the year award as a junior, his production slipped from 18.1 points a game to 14.1—and his team failed to win a Big Ten championship for the fourth straight year. "It seemed like those dreams started falling away," says Spartans coach Tom Izzo. "I told him, 'You've quit dreaming! You have to keep dreaming!'"

AND SO, on the eve of Friday's South Regional semi against Memphis, Neitzel is thinking big again. "Going to the Final Four would be huge," he said after ending his scoring skid (just five points on 2-for-11 shooting in Round 1 against Temple) with 21 points in a gut-check 65--54 second-round win over Pittsburgh. "I want to leave it all on the floor because every game could be my last."

One of Neitzel's best friends in college hoops happens to be Memphis's Dorsey, his teammate on last year's U.S. Pan American Games team, who says he likes to call Neitzel "L'il Vin Diesel." When their teams meet on Friday in Houston, the result may well hinge on Dorsey's fragile psyche. "If he shows up we're a great team. If he doesn't...," Douglas-Roberts says, shrugging his shoulders like a weary parent. Indeed, Dorsey is an inscrutable presence among the Tigers. During last week's first media session, he lay on the locker room floor with a towel over his head and refused to speak with reporters, claiming he was catching up on his sleep.

It was just another of his infamous mood swings. "Joey's one of those guys, when it's really going good, that's when he's at his worst—that's when he reverts and goes [to nightclubs]," says Calipari, who still shakes his head recalling Dorsey's actions at a Memphis club last fall, when he sparked a brawl that ended with the arrests of teammates Jeff Robinson and Shawn Taggart. "Joey likes to go out and be with people and have them stroke [his ego]," Calipari adds. "I'm like, 'Go to the movie theater! Go to the mall! Go buy a dog! Because dogs love you.' But to go out at three in the morning? It's to get stroked. I'm telling you, there are other ways to do it."

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