OSU Shakes off Xavier Scare, Eyes Volunteers

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Greg Oden punished himself this week.

Angry over having lost his composure and missing some shots in a second-round, near-loss to Xavier, the Ohio State big man came to San Antonio looking for redemption.

Not from his coach or teammates, mind you, but from his biggest critic: Greg Oden.

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

Having pulled off a stunning victory over Xavier, Oden and Ohio State (32-3) advanced to a semifinal of the NCAA tournament's South Regional. They'll face Tennessee (24-10) on Thursday night.

The Volunteers might be the perfect opponent for Oden.

When the teams met in January, Oden has 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.

Ohio State won 68-66, but it wasn't easy. 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.

They haven't lost since, sending Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl scrambling for ways to slow the Buckeyes.

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."

Tennessee's leading scorer, Chris Lofton, missed a crucial free throw in the previous game against Ohio State. It was so crucial that teammates have mockingly 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."