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March 23, 2007

On Fire & Misfired: Stepping up to the task

Rivals.com staff writer David Fox has taken on the challenge of watching every minute of the regional semifinals and finals in the NCAA Tournament. Here are his thoughts on the first four regional semifinals:

On fire: At least in the tournament, Mike Conley Jr. is Ohio State's best freshman. He carried his 11 points from overtime in the win over Xavier with him to San Antonio. Conley shook off early foul trouble to take over the 85-84 win over Tennessee. The Buckeyes trailed by as much as 20, but Conley's penetration, passing and defense caused havoc for the Volunteers. Conley scored 17 points with six assists, seven rebounds and two steals. As another Ohio State game was decided in part at the free throw line, Conley sank the game-winner from the line. He was 9 of 14 in the game.

Misfired: Acie Law's college career came to a rough ending. Texas A&M's senior guard was held in check for most of the game, scoring 13 points on 6-of-17 shooting. Leading 64-63, Law came up with a nice play, grabbing for a loose ball and keeping it in bounds, but moments later he came up with his biggest gaffe. Law took a long inbounds pass but missed a layup that would have put the Aggies up by three.

On fire: Tennessee's shooting certainly doesn't begin and end with Chris Lofton. The Volunteers built a 20-point lead by making six of their first eight three point attempts. Lofton was the leader by making 6 of 13 3-pointers on the day, but guards JaJuan Smith and Ryan Childress pitched in with four 3s each. When Tennessee's shooting cooled off in the second half, Ohio State started to make its comeback. Tennessee ended the day missing seven of its last nine from beyond the arc.

Misfired: This tournament was supposed to be the year of the freshman. Other than Conley, it hasn't quite turned out that way. Kevin Durant is back in Austin and Greg Oden is looking rather ordinary. His block his fourth of the game of the potential game-winning basket from Ramar Smith sealed the win, but otherwise Oden was practically invisible. With five minutes left in the first half, Oden had more fouls (three) than points (two). Because of foul trouble, he was limited to 18 minutes. Tennessee forward Duke Crews, whom Oden dominated in the first meeting, got the better of the top freshman in the country in the first half. In the rematch, Oden finished with nine points and a mere three rebounds.

On fire: Before the tournament started, Memphis looked like it might be doomed by free throws. Now, the Tigers are winning games from the line. Memphis converted only 61 percent of their free throws during the regular season but have made 72 percent in three tournament games. In the 65-64 win over Texas A&M, Memphis' Antonio Anderson made both free throws with 3.1 seconds left to take the 65-64 lead. Although the Tigers were outrebounded 30-27, a flurry of second chances gave Anderson the opportunity to win the game from the line. Memphis got four second chances at the basket on its final possession before A&M's Donald Sloan was called for the foul on Anderson.

Thursday's Top Performers
Scoring
Ron Lewis, Ohio State, 25
Chris Lofton, Tennessee, 24
Jamaal Tatum, Southern Illinois, 19
Jeremy Hunt, Memphis, 19
Mike Conley Jr., Ohio State, 17
Arron Afflalo, UCLA, 17
Antanas Kavaliauskas, Texas A&M, 17
Rebounding
Randal Falker, Southern Illinois, 9
Lorenzo Mata, UCLA, 9
JaJuan Smith, Tennessee, 8
Antanas Kavaliauskas, Texas A&M, 8
Assists
Dominique Kirk, Memphis, 7
Mike Conley Jr., Ohio State, 6
Brandon Rush, Kansas, 5
Dane Bradshaw, Tennessee, 4
Ramar Smith, Tennessee, 4
Levance Fields, Pittsburgh, 4
Blocks/Steals
Greg Oden, Ohio State, 4 blocks
Russell Robinson, Kansas, 3 steals
On fire: Texas A&M center Antanas Kavaliauskas, a non-factor in the first two rounds, became a force under the basket in the loss to Memphis. He scored 17 points with eight rebounds. The same could not be said for the other Aggie who had struggled in the first two rounds. Guard Josh Carter never found his shot, going 1 of 4 from the field against Memphis to end the tournament shooting 3 of 12.

On fire: Memphis coach John Calipari was concerned his leading scorer, Chris Douglas-Roberts, wouldn't be able to keep up with the rest of the team after he sprained his ankle in the second-round win over Nevada. Douglas-Roberts insisted all week he would play. His coach had little reason for concern after he scored 15 points. On the other side of the bracket, Southern Illinois also got a boost from a guard returning from injury. Matt Shaw, who sprained his ankle in the first round against Holy Cross, came back to score nine points with three assists against Kansas.

On fire: The knock on Kansas during the regular season was a tendency to get too complacent. Against a tenacious Southern Illinois team, the Jayhawks were anything but, diving for loose balls and gutting out a win over the Salukis' tough man-to-man defense. Southern Illinois succeeded for most of the game in slowing down the pace, forcing Kansas to sustain its defense longer, but the Jayhawks adjusted enough to grind out a game barely played in the 60s.

Misfired: Law wasn't the only one to misfire near the basket late in a loss. Thanks to good positioning from Kansas' Mario Chalmers, Southern Illinois' Matt Shaw missed a basket in transition while Jamaal Tatum missed the tip-in. Chalmers made one of two free throws on Kansas' ensuing possession in a key three-point swing in a 61-58 win.

Misfired: Tatum finished strong with 17 second-half points, but Tatum and Southern Illinois had trouble finding the hoop to start the game. Tatum was 1 of 8 in the first half while the Salukis started 1 of 9 from the field.

On fire: In a tournament where we've seen so many games affected by poor free throw shooting, the first day of the regional semifinals featured solid performances at the line. Ohio State and Memphis both scored their winning points on foul shots. For UCLA, Arron Afflalo made all 10 of his free throws in a 64-55 win.

On fire (if you like defense), misfired (if you like offense): The matchup between UCLA's Ben Howland and Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon turned out just like we expected a defensive struggle. The two teams combined to shoot 39.2 percent from the field. By the time UCLA led by seven in the second half, the seven-point lead seemed insurmountable.

Misfired: A tough ending for the career of Pittsburgh senior center Aaron Gray. Not that anyone for Pittsburgh was particularly effective, but the star 7-footer ended his season with a lackluster 10-point, six-rebound performance against a UCLA team lacking size since the departure of Ryan Hollins.

David Fox is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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