Tourney journey set for tip-off


Maryland won the national title last season with an uncommon blend of virtues: strong senior leadership, dominating inside presence, splendid backcourt, versatile bench and accomplished coaching.

What aggregate of skills will capture this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament?

The athleticism and balance of Kentucky? The frenetic, fast-break style of Kansas? The withering defense of Oklahoma? The exquisite perimeter game of Arizona? Or none of the above?

This is where dreamers come to pinch themselves, schemers work overtime and memories last a lifetime. The NCAA tournament's magical journey will start to unfold with today's first round. Over 19 days, the profile of the next national champion will emerge as surely as spring.

"Certainly, I'm a dreamer like everyone else," said Colorado coach Ricardo Patton, whose Buffs carry a No. 10 seed in the South Regional. "As coaches, we dream of what it'd be like to make a [tournament] run. Right now, we have to focus in on our first game against Michigan State [tomorrow]. It'll be a very tough game for us."

Only the strongest will survive the pressure cooker that is the NCAA tournament. Here is a look at some of the variables that could shape this year's champion.

Senior leadership: "There's no substitute for experience," Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said. "We have four seniors that have been to the Big Dance, and I think that's something that's very valuable."

But the sixth-seeded Cowboys, who face Penn in their East Regional opener, will be hard-pressed to reach the Sweet 16, let alone the Final Four, because they'll likely face Syracuse, in Boston, in the second round.

Arizona, No. 1 seed in the West, brings three seasoned seniors, including point guard Jason Gardner and forward Luke Walton, to the tournament. But Gardner has been in a shooting slump and Walton has been nursing an injured ankle.

If senior leadership counts so much, keep an eye on Texas and Florida, the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the South. Texas has only one senior who plays and Florida is led by a pair of precocious freshmen scorers, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson.

Tournament exposure: The last time Arizona played a tournament game in Salt Lake City, the Wildcats bowed out in the second round. That was three years ago. Walton hasn't forgotten.

"Being a No. 1 seed [in 2000], I don't think we were as ready as we should have been and we lost to Wisconsin," he said. "We were a young team and we had a beat-up team that year. When you lose a game, you learn a lot from that."

Kansas coach Roy Williams says those lessons are off the court as well as on it.

"Having seniors who have been through the whole thing helps you so much because they don't allow distractions to get you away from what you're trying to focus on," he said. "Younger kids get so caught up in the excitement, they forget what's important."

Exposure is big. Just ask the Terps who played in consecutive Final Fours.

Inside presence: Big men will cut a wide swath through this tournament, from Connecticut's Emeka Okafor to Mississippi State's Mario Austin to Texas' James Thomas. Okafor is probably the best defensive big man in the country, and Austin is also an outstanding defender. They are two key reasons the Huskies and Bulldogs, both fifth seeds, are viewed as sleepers.

Colorado has one of the Big 12's best inside games with 7-foot center David Harrison and shot blocker Stephane Pele. Other prominent big men are Xavier's David West, Arizona State's Ike Diogu and Central Michigan's 7-0 Chris Kaman.

Then there is Kentucky. With Jules Camara, Chuck Hayes, Erik Daniels and Marquis Estill, the Wildcats have a surplus of strength inside.

Bodacious backcourt: Even though there are a ton of quality guards - Texas' T. J. Ford, Oklahoma's Hollis Price, Kansas' Kirk Hinrich, Pittsburgh's Brandin Knight, Oregon's Luke Ridnour, Louisville's Reece Gaines - the Terps should be able to match up with any of them. That's because Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas are battle-tested.

LSU, the No. 8 seed in the South, has the ability to bomb away from outside with sharpshooters Collis Temple III, Torris Bright and Ronald Dupree. The Tigers knocked down 33 three-points over a two-game stretch this season.

Superstar syndrome: The Terps had one in Juan Dixon a year ago, and he was their inspiration. Teams who fall into this category include Oklahoma with Price, Texas with Ford, Wake Forest with Josh Howard and Syracuse with Carmelo Anthony, who played at Towson Catholic.

Price and Howard are seniors getting their last shots. Ford, a sophomore, and Anthony, a freshman, could be headed for the NBA as well after this season.

Dynamic defense: Oklahoma has a well-earned reputation as one of the nation's hardest working defenses. The Sooners' problem of late, though, has been an inability to close out games. They were fortunate to hold off Missouri in the Big 12 championship game.

Mississippi State is another tenacious defensive team. Arizona has the versatility to switch effectively from man-to-man pressure to a matchup zone. Illinois held opponents under 40 percent shooting in the Big Ten.

But will anyone match Kentucky's intensity in the tournament? The Wildcats allowed just 58.9 points a game in the Southeastern Conference, and allowed 41.1 percent shooting.

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