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Memphis, which lost that championship game 75--68 in overtime, carries indignation west to play Missouri in Glendale, Ariz., on Thursday. After Memphis rallied late to dispose of No. 15 seed Cal State Northridge 81--70 in the opening round, their sensitive buttons were pushed by Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, who had said the day before, "If [Memphis] played in the ACC, they'd have a losing record in the league.... The ACC is too tough."
Less than 24 hours later, as the Tigers were disposing of the Terps, 89--70, Memphis fans began chanting, "ACC! ACC!" with more than four minutes to play. "People will say what they want to say," says Tigers junior forward Pierre Henderson-Niles. "But we showed them last year with what we did to Michigan State, Texas, UCLA. It's not about the conference, it's about who you have on your team, who has heart."
MEMPHIS HAS proven itself dangerous once again. Coach John Calipari survived losing Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts to the NBA after last year's title game, and his team's matchup with frenetic Missouri should be one of the most heated in the Sweet 16. (Mizzou, under third-year coach Mike Anderson, is no slouch in the redemption category either. The Tigers are one year removed from a spate of off-court issues that contributed to a 16--16 season.) But in fact Memphis's quest is about the reputation of its league too. The Tigers were the only team from Conference USA to earn a spot in the tournament. And despite Vasquez's braggadocio, the ACC has been largely a bust: Among the seven conference teams selected to the tournament, only warhorses Duke and North Carolina remain.
Both advanced from a friendly sub-regional in Greensboro, N.C., and both find themselves reaching to match their own high standards. The Blue Devils, who have won three national titles since 1991 under Mike Krzyzewski, last played in the Final Four in 2004 and have now made their first Sweet 16 since '06. Within the team, a subtle psychological dance has unfolded. The players live with an acute awareness of the frustration of losing early: Duke went out in the first round of the '07 tournament and then in the second round a year ago, when current juniors Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson walked off the floor after losing to West Virginia 73--67 in Washington, D.C., only to watch painfully as Purdue was warming up to play Xavier. Before Duke's 74--69 second-round win over Texas on Saturday, Henderson said to Scheyer, "Don't forget about last year and what we saw."
Meanwhile, Krzyzewski has taken the opposite approach, constantly coddling his team's psyche. "Every day he's telling us, 'Now's our time' and 'Live in this moment,'?" says Scheyer. "Coach has been doing a good job of making sure we don't feel that extra pressure and that we're just playing for this year." The Blue Devils, who rely on offensive spacing and three-point shooting to get the most from their relatively modest skills, will need a full complement of emotional weapons against Villanova on Thursday in Boston. The Wildcats have powerful and dangerous starters at all five positions, led by Cunningham, and have three strong reserves, including explosive sophomore guard Corey Fisher. If Duke can knock off 'Nova, the Blue Devils would probably meet Pittsburgh, an even tougher team with a mission of its own—to get past a Sweet 16 roadblock that has halted the Panthers for 35 years.
North Carolina's quest is self-evident: To deliver a championship to core seniors Green and, most of all, Hansbrough, the 6'9" forward who in the Tar Heels' 101--58 opening-round win over Radford became the leading scorer in ACC history. The goal became vastly more realistic when gifted junior point guard Ty Lawson, who missed the ACC tournament and the opening-round NCAA gimme with a jammed right big toe, returned to score 23 points last Saturday in an 84--70 win over LSU.
Unlike Krzyzewski, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has not minimized his team's quest, which matches the Tar Heels with Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Friday. As the Heels struggled with LSU in the second half, Williams screamed during a timeout, "Is this how you want your careers to end? Then continue to play like this."
Arizona, the lone double-digit seed remaining, needs no such motivation. The Wildcats' very presence in the tournament is a gift they have embraced. They lost four of their last five games to end the regular season and then bowed out in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. Two hours before NCAA selections were announced, they ran through a brutal practice at the McKale Center in Tucson. "It was the most intense practice of the year," says sophomore guard Zane Johnson. "It was like we had all this nervous energy. Honestly, I didn't think we were going to make the tournament. None of us did."
They watched CBS's Selection Show alone as a team and celebrated only with one another when they were picked. They endured near unanimous trashing by college hoops nation, which held the Wildcats up as emblematic of the NCAA's power-conference bias. Then they won two games, taking down overmatched (and overseeded) Utah and upstart Cleveland State, answering the criticism on the floor. Their minirun has served as sweet satisfaction for two people more than others. Interim coach Russ Pennell was given the job when Lute Olson suddenly retired for health reasons in October, and Pennell now finds himself nearing the game's grandest stage despite the fact that he is unlikely to be retained. "You never know what life is going to deal you," says Pennell. "I had no idea this would happen the way it did."
Junior forward Chase Budinger, maligned for subpar performances in Arizona's first-round losses the last two years, scored 35 points in the two wins. Now the Wildcats meet Louisville in Indianapolis. "We've had hard times," says Budinger, "but all that matters is where we're at now." Here is where they are: Alive, playing late March basketball with house money. And, like the rest of the Sweet 16, convinced of their destiny.