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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

What To Look For

March 23, 2004|Robyn Norwood

SYRACUSE vs. ALABAMA

STORY LINE: Defending champion Syracuse -- minus Carmelo Anthony, of course -- looks as if it has a glimmer of a chance to return to the Final Four. But the Orangemen must get by an Alabama team that has been tested by the nation's toughest schedule if they are to force an all-Big East regional final against Connecticut.

HOW THEY ADVANCED: Syracuse rode Gerry McNamara's 43-point performance to a five-point victory over Brigham Young in the first round and held off a Maryland comeback for a two-point victory in the second. Alabama survived a last-second shot against Southern Illinois, then came from 13 points behind to stun No. 1-seeded Stanford when a potential tying three-pointer bounded off the rim at the buzzer.

COMMON OPPONENTS: Alabama lost to Pittsburgh, but Syracuse split with the Panthers, taking a three-point victory in overtime last month. Both teams lost to Providence. Alabama defeated Charlotte, but Syracuse lost to the 49ers in its first game of the season.

STYLE OF PLAY: Alabama has a determined lineup of thin but very quick players who know how to play in close games. (Three of Alabama's 12 losses were in overtime.) Syracuse plays a 2-3 zone defense that is confounding to many opponents outside the Big East, and might spell trouble for Alabama.

X FACTOR: Alabama point guard Antoine Pettway averages less than 10 points but has a reputation for making the big shot -- as he did when he drove for the game-winning basket with five seconds left against Southern Illinois.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Alabama survived two last-second shots to reach the Sweet 16. But Syracuse -- with explosive scorers in McNamara and Hakim Warrick -- probably will be able to use its talent and 2-3 zone to end the Tide's run.

CONNECTICUT vs. VANDERBILT

STORY LINE: Connecticut was a popular preseason pick to win the NCAA championship, but slipped from the spotlight as the losses added up. Vanderbilt, long considered a difficult place to coach because of high academic standards, has overcome that reputation behind star forward Matt Freije, the school's career scoring leader.

HOW THEY ADVANCED: Connecticut made it look easy, defeating Vermont by 17 in the first round before beating DePaul by 17 in the second. Vanderbilt handled Western Michigan by 13, then came from behind with the help of a collapse by North Carolina State to win by two.

COMMON OPPONENTS: None. However, Connecticut and Vanderbilt have met in each of the two previous seasons, with Connecticut winning both times.

STYLE OF PLAY: Connecticut has versatility, with a strong group of guards led by Ben Gordon to complement the inside play of Emeka Okafor, whose shot-blocking is one of the keys to the defense. Vanderbilt relies on Freije, but 5-foot-11 guard Mario Moore has been big lately.

X FACTOR: Okafor's back has held up so far, but the Huskies know he might be forced out at almost any time. Nevertheless, he has been effective in two tournament games, averaging 12.5 points and 13 rebounds despite the stress fracture in his back and tendency toward back spasms that led him to miss two of three games in the Big East tournament.

WHAT TO EXPECT: With top-seeded Stanford out, Connecticut has become the favorite in the Phoenix regional, and Okafor is too much for Vanderbilt to handle.

-- Robyn Norwood

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