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March 18, 2008

Memphis hopes Rose makes the difference

REGIONAL ANALYSIS: East | Midwest | South | West
FIRST-ROUND CAPSULES: East | Midwest | South | West
MORE: View the complete NCAA bracket | Print an NCAA Bracket | Play Tourney Pick'em

MEMPHIS Freshman point guard Derrick Rose had an otherwise nondescript performance in the Conference USA Tournament final save for a sequence early in the second half.

Tulsa guard Brett McDade made a steal on Memphis' end and appeared to have a breakaway layup.

The word "appeared" is a good choice. It implies that something was about to go terribly wrong for McDade, and it did.

Just as McDade, a 6-foot senior, was about to lay the ball off the backboard, Rose appeared. Part apparition, part greyhound, he swatted the ball off the glass. Alas, he hit it too hard, and it bounced toward the foul line and Tulsa's Calvin Walls, who was trailing the play.

Walls, a 6-7 senior, gathered the ball in stride and went up to finish the play. Rose cut him off and tried to take a charge. Walls slid past him to the right, but the adjustment forced his layup attempt to roll off the front of the rim.

Where did the ball go? Into the waiting arms of Rose, who somehow had recovered in the blink of an eye to leap up above the rim and grab the rebound. Then he took off for the other end.

"I just shook my head and was like, 'Wow,' " Tigers coach John Calipari said. "That's what he does. The times he plays hardest are when he turns the ball over and then runs the guy down. It's like, 'Uh-oh, you're getting tracked.'

"At halftime I was disappointed and mad at him because we had one turnover at the half and it was his."

Rose finished with four points on 2-for-6 shooting, but the Tigers hardly needed him. They blasted Tulsa 77-51 to earn C-USA's automatic bid to the tournament for the third consecutive season.

Rose added four assists and two turnovers to go along with three rebounds in 24 minutes. But then he makes a play that reminds you that even on a team with established stars such as Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson and Joey Dorsey, the kid will determine whether the Tigers can get one step beyond where they've been for the past two seasons.

The Tigers are the No. 1 seed in the South Regional for the NCAA Tournament. They spent much of the year ranked No. 1 and even stoked talk of entering the tournament undefeated before then-No. 2 Tennessee knocked them off in Memphis 66-62 on Feb. 23.

Still, they're 33-1. They also won 33 games last year, and 33 in 2005-06. They reached the Elite Eight both of those seasons, but that won't suffice this time. Rose is supposed to be the difference in pushing Memphis to the Final Four.

"Coming here, this was the perfect fit for me," Rose said. "They're a veteran team, and they take the pressure off me. I had a little bit of publicity when I first came (Rose was Rivals.com's No. 1 point guard in the 2007 class), and Chris and Joey and them guided me the right way."

Rose is averaging 13.9 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds. He has a 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and he's shooting 46.7 percent, including 33.7 from 3-point range.

He was better against NCAA Tournament teams. The Tigers went 8-1 against teams in the field of 65, and Rose averaged 16.6 points, 5.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds. He shot the same percentage (46.7), but he was more assertive all over the floor.

Derrick Rose is one of a handful of freshmen who could have a major impact on the NCAA Tournament. Basketball editor Bob McClellan takes a look at five more, listed alphabetically, who could have a say in the national championship:
F DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh: A three-time Rivals.com National Freshman of the Week, the big fellow just has to stay on the court. When he avoids foul trouble and plays at least 30 minutes, which he has done 14 times this season, he averages 16.1 points and 11.8 rebounds compared to season averages of 11.7 points and 9.1 rebounds.
G Eric Gordon, Indiana: His shooting percentage has slumped over the past seven games, but would you want to see him in the second round if you were top-seeded North Carolina? He has scored at least 25 points 10 times this season.
G O.J. Mayo, USC: He and Kansas State freshman phenom Michael Beasley will hook up in the first round, with the winner probably getting a shot at Wisconsin in the second round. Mayo has been on a shooting tear (54.7 percent from 3-point range over the past eight games), while the Badgers defend the perimeter as well as anyone.
C A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt: The Commodores, a surprise No. 4 seed, need to get big play out of the 6-10 Aussie. The Sweet 16 isn't outside the realm of possibility if he delivers.
F Kyle Singler, Duke: Singler is shooting 30.9 percent over the past six games compared with 45.5 percent for the season. If he doesn't right himself, the Blue Devils may not be dancing long.
When his teammates could muster little offense against the Vols, Rose rose to the occasion. He scored a game-high 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting and added five rebounds and five assists.

"He's so mature," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "There just aren't many kids built like that. He's a man. He's got a good feel for the game and command of the game. He's got poise and great size. He was as good or better than advertised."

Rose is 6 feet 3 and a sturdy 205 pounds. He's as fast dribbling the ball from end to end as anyone in the country. He has a calm about him that provides a nice balance for the excitable Tigers. He also plays without ego, which is something that can't be said for a lot of the "me-now" freshmen.

If anything, Calipari wants to see Rose be a little more selfish. It's likely that would only benefit the Tigers. When Rose is off his game, Memphis is sluggish and vulnerable.

Southern Miss hung around with Memphis in the semifinals of the C-USA tournament. They trailed 55-44 with 6:41 left before Rose scored eight points in the next six minutes to quell any thoughts of an upset. The Tigers won 69-53.

"There's a big difference in playing them in Hattiesburg than playing them here," said Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy, whose team lost a 76-67 decision at home against the Tigers. "That's just growth. You learn from that, and they'll log it and we'll be better for it. And then it'll be a lot better when No. 23 (Rose) goes pro. It'll get a lot better when that happens."

Rose, for his part, says all of the right things when asked if his first season on Beale Street will be his last.

"I've got three more years here," Rose said. "It's possible I could stay. We'll have to see at the end of the year if I decide to make that jump."

He wouldn't be the first player to leave Memphis early. He could be the first to leave early as a national champion.

REGIONAL ANALYSIS: East | Midwest | South | West
FIRST-ROUND CAPSULES: East | Midwest | South | West
MORE: View the complete NCAA bracket | Print an NCAA Bracket | Play Tourney Pick'em

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Tuesday at 8:15 a.m. ET and can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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