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The Oden Effect

JAIME ARON • Mar 22, 2007 at 5:51 AM

SAN ANTONIO - Tennessee's Bruce Pearl is far too good of a talker to frame his team's upcoming game against Ohio State in worn-out coachspeak.

So when he essentially says "it's not Greg Oden, it's the rest of the Buckeyes" that he's focused on containing tonight, at least give him the benefit of the doubt and listen to his explanation.

Start with the background.

The Volunteers faced Ohio State in Oden's 10th game of the season, back in January, when Oden was adjusting to the college game and still wearing a brace on the surgically repaired right wrist that delayed the start of his college career.

Those things were supposed to be holding him down. Instead, he had his first monster game: 24 points, 15 rebounds, perfect from the foul line (6-for-6), four assists, three blocks and a steal in 36 minutes.

Yet the Buckeyes, playing at home, still needed what was then a career-high in points from freshman point guard Mike Conley and a 3-pointer from Ron Lewis with 11.2 seconds left to beat the Volunteers 68-66.

Ohio State (32-3) hasn't lost since, a run of 19 in a row it takes into a semifinal against Tennessee (24-10) in the NCAA tournament's South Regional.

Pearl spent this week studying his team's near-miss in Columbus and most of the other 18 games in the Buckeyes' run. After concluding there's no stopping Oden - "He's unlike anybody I've ever gone up against," Pearl said - he set his sights on everyone else wearing red and white.

And the part that scares him the most?

"They've not broken out yet," Pearl said. "They've not had that breakout game that we all know they're capable of."

Buckeyes coach Thad Matta was flattered by the notion his top-seeded team has gotten within four wins of a national championship by merely grinding out games.

However, he agrees that his team can do whatever it takes to win, as opposed to being a juggernaut that goes out and does things its way, daring others to stop it.

"The thing I love about this team is we've shown that we can play a lot of different ways," Matta said, listing a few examples - not including the overtime win against Xavier in the second round that kept Ohio State in the tournament. "So I hope he's right and tomorrow night is a big breakout game for us."

The last time these teams met, Pearl threw a full-court press at the Buckeyes and rattled them into 20 turnovers, about twice their average in the Oden era.

Ohio State has fixed that flaw, making Pearl wish he hadn't exposed it so long ago.

"We played our cards, we showed our hand," he said. "We're a tough matchup - the first time. So I don't know that our game in Columbus is really necessarily going to help us much here."

Perhaps the worst news for the Vols is that Oden feels like he let the Buckeyes down in their last game, when he knocked over a Xavier player, sending him to the foul line with 10 seconds left for two shots that could've won it. Oden also fouled out for the first time on that play, which kept him on the bench in overtime.

"I was a little down on myself, but these last couple of days I've been working on my game, hitting shots, hitting free throws," Oden said. "I hope things will be better for me."

Also looking for a happier ending is Tennessee's leading scorer Chris Lofton, who missed a crucial free throw in the previous game against Ohio State.

How crucial was it? Teammates have teasingly called him "Buckeye" ever since.

"It's a joke," he said. "And they tease me a lot. But it's just for my own good."

Revenge isn't as important to Lofton as a chance to make the regional finals. The winner of this game will play the Texas A&M-Memphis winner on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime," Lofton said.

Teammate Dane Bradshaw said the narrow loss to Ohio State "gives you confidence because you know you can compete."

Another confidence booster for Bradshaw is that the Vols weren't at their best last time around, missing junior guard Jordan Howell and at the front end of a 2-6 tailspin at the time.

"As close as we played Ohio State, we had a number of guys that didn't play their best individual games," he said. "Hopefully we can put it all together and limit all their potential NBA players."

Pearl couldn't have said it better himself.

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