- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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MILWAUKEE -- Curse? What curse?
If Ohio State's Evan Turner looms over this pod -- he is the best player, his is the best team -- he looms even larger on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. Turner is one of the four athletes on SI's regional NCAA tournament covers. Naturally, at open practices Saturday, talk of the fabled "SI jinx" wasn't far behind.
For what it's worth, Turner isn't concerned.
"I never heard of jinx until a couple of days ago," Turner, who leads Ohio State in points, rebounds, assists and steals, said. "I'm the type of kid -- you make your own destiny, will yourself into the situation. I'm not worrying about the jinx, but worrying about what my teammates and I have been doing, which is playing Ohio State basketball. Everything happens for a reason."
Fair enough. But what of his opponents, the famed Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara? They're not feeling the whole jinx thing, either. Senior guard James Powell injected a little obvious -- but welcome -- common sense into the discussion.
"Who knows," Powell said. "I mean, the only curse I know of is the Madden curse."
"When it's March, anything is possible," Powell continued. "I'm not looking at the Sports Illustrated or anything like that. There's a hundred other players on that cover. If everybody was cursed then there would be no winner."
Well said, James! In the spirit of Mr. Powell's brand of existentialism, then, let's preview the games on hand in Milwaukee Friday.
No. 11 Minnesota vs. No. 6 Xavier
Key to the game: Who controls the pace? Tubby Smith and the Gophers prefer to play a very Big Ten-esque style -- slow, plodding, obsessed with defense and rebounding. The Musketeers prefer to get up and down, allowing guard Jordan Crawford and mates to take easy shots in transition. Which style wins out? Can Minnesota control the pace? Or will the Gophers get left in Xavier's considerable dust?
Player to watch: The aforementioned Crawford leads the Musketeeers in points; few scorers in the country are quite so confident in their talents. This can lead to the occasional bad shot, though, and in the tournament, too many of those can cost you dearly.
Who has the edge: Push. Cop-out, I know, but I don't want to go so far as to say that Minnesota has the edge here -- just that the Gophers are still a bit underrated (the teams are barely distinguishable in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings) and could push -- sorry -- Xavier to the very end. Expect a close one.
No. 14 Oakland vs. No. 3 Pittsburgh
Key to the game: Can the Golden Grizzlies defend? Oakland got to the tournament with an offense that ranked among the 100 most efficient in the country; its defense, on the other hand, couldn't crack the top 200. If Oakland can't find a way to limit Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker, this could be over in a hurry.
Player to watch: Ashton Gibbs. Gibbs could play poorly and Pitt can still survive ... but don't think Pittsburgh won't want to get their leading scorer off on the right foot to start the tournament.
Who has the edge: Pittsburgh. Barring a really poor shooting performance by the Panthers, Oakland simply won't have the horses to keep up with a good-but-not-great Big East team.
No. 10 Georgia Tech vs. No. 7 Oklahoma State
Key to the game: Georgia Tech's bigs. Oklahoma State is a team that thrives on its perimeter talent -- specifically All-American candidate James Anderson, not to mention guards Obi Muonelo and Keiton Page -- but all the talk here Thursday revolved around just how Oklahoma State's undermatched big men planned to stop future NBAers Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors down low. Can Anderson and company do enough to offset Tech's advantage on the block?
Player to watch: Favors. The big man has contributed throughout the Jackets' season, but the hype surrounding his future NBA career has consistently exceeded his performance. What better stage to prove the haters wrong (and to lure in a few more NBA scouts)? (Honorable mention: James Anderson -- enjoy him while he lasts.)
Who has the edge: Georgia Tech has the superior talent. But it's hard to trust them to put it together. Anderson provides the edge Oklahoma State needs as the Cowboys shoot over Tech's big men on the way to a victory.
No. 15 UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 2 Ohio State
Key to the game: How do you stop Evan Turner? Answer: you don't. But you can, if you're very careful, stop his teammates. Let Turner get his buckets, refuse to help on defense, and stop the barrage of 3-pointers that Ohio State usually launches when Turner overwhelms the game. If UC Santa Barbara can throw some of what they call their "confusing" defense at Turner and the Buckeyes, they might be able to slow OSU down just enough to hang around.
Player to watch: Turner is the obvious selection here, not only because he's OSU's most important player, but because he's the sort of rare college talent that you have to cherish before he rushes off and gets paid the millions of dollars he deserves for the talent he displays. Like Anderson above, enjoy every minute of this Evan Turner postseason. Time's running out.
Who has the edge: Um, Ohio State. But if this tournament has proven anything, it's that crazy things happen in the NCAA tournament. Don't bust out your bracket Sharpie just yet.