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Lofton, UT speed into NCAA tournament



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- Chris Lofton corralled a loose ball, streaked down the wing and zinged a crosscourt pass that led to a rim-shaking, reverse dunk.

Tennessee's star guard was in full flight Thursday, and his teammates followed his cue. Alley-oop lobs, balls ricocheting out of play, coach Bruce Pearl mimicking the arena buzzer and shouting, "Let's go!"

It was 40 minutes of mayhem. And it was just practice -- so frenzied that student managers brought cups of water onto the court to give players a break.

"We can't get caught up in Tennessee's fast pace," American sharpshooter Garrison Carr said.

Quite a task for any team. Especially one making its NCAA tournament debut Friday.

They come from completely different worlds. They did not take on a common opponent this season.

Ranked No. 1 earlier this season, the second-seeded Volunteers (29-4) played nearly half their games against teams that made the tournament. They made plenty of TV appearances, won the Southeastern Conference regular season and finished with the top RPI in the nation.

Yet something is missing. Not only have the Vols never reached the Final Four, they've never even made a regional final.

They enter the East Regional after a sluggish showing in the SEC tournament, squeaking past South Carolina and then losing to Arkansas.

"We know Tennessee basketball is not known for postseason play," Lofton said. "We're not really known as a basketball school."

Not the men's team, anyway. Pat Summitt has done pretty well on the women's side.

At least fans know where the Vols come from. American is trying to establish its place on the March basketball map, and on MapQuest.

"People still ask me, `American University? Where is that?' And I have to tell them it's in Washington, D.C. So hopefully tomorrow, being on the national scene, people from all over the nation will watch us play," Carr said.

"If we have a good showing, they will remember where American is," he said. "That's what we want to do for the program, let people know that American is in Washington, D.C., put it out there, and help the program build from here."

Champions of the Patriot League, the 15th-seeded Eagles (21-11) want to further enhance their conference's reputation. Hardly known as a power, its teams have done well in recent NCAA play -- Bucknell beat Kansas and Arkansas, and Holy Cross played tough against Kentucky and Marquette.

Four times a No. 15 has pulled an upset, most recently in 2001 when Hampton toppled Iowa State. That also was the last time -- aside from a couple of those opening-round, No. 65 vs. No. 64 matchups -- when a team won its tournament debut.

Keeping their composure and playing at a slower pace against a trapping, pressing, fast-breaking team such as Tennessee will be a challenge for American.

"They play a unique style. They put an awful lot of pressure on you with their offense and their defense. They almost force a faster tempo upon the game," American coach Jeff Jones said. "It's very effective. It's not a style that many people play."

"With a short time frame for preparation, you don't know the nuances. You can say, OK, we don't want to throw the ball here, we don't want to be caught up in this or that. But knowing how to do it is something that quite honestly takes time," he said.

Particularly since playing Tennessee can become something of a blur. A dozen Vols play at least 10 minutes per game. Pearl gets into the act, too.

"You see him on the sidelines standing up the whole game, jumping up and down, it looks like he's actually on the court a lot of time playing defense," Carr said. "So obviously his team feeds off his energy."

Pearl made his March mark in 2005, leading unheralded Wisconsin-Milwaukee to victories over Alabama and Boston College. Pulling off surprises was fun, but entering the tournament as a big favorite is more enjoyable.

"I like Goliath because Goliath has better players," he said. "Bigger rocks."

 


 

 

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