Are guards the key in March?

Conventional wisdom suggests guards are the key in March Madness. A closer look at the teams projected to meet in this year's Final Four, however, reveals that all of them rely heavily on quality inside players.

Florida has 6-11 Joakim Noah and 6-10 Al Horford. North Carolina has 6-9 Tyler Hansbrough and 6-9 Brandan Wright. Ohio State has 7-foot Greg Oden. Kansas has 6-8 Julian Wright.

As a result, a new school of thought is evolving. Some experts are now saying that guard play can get you through the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament but you'd better have a potent inside game if you hope to advance to the Final Four.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl ranks as something of an expert on the topic of quality big men, since his team faced Noah and Horford twice during the 2006-07 regular season, Oden, Hansbrough and Brandan Wright once each.

Noah had 19 points and 6 rebounds Feb. 3 at Gainesville, 8 points and 11 rebounds in the Feb. 27 rematch at Knoxville. Horford had 22 points and 13 rebounds in the former, 17 and 10 in the latter. Tennessee had no answer for Oden (24 points, 15 rebounds) Jan. 13 in Columbus and had few answers for Hansbrough (27 points, 9 rebounds) and Wright (19 points, 8 rebounds) Nov. 24 in the NIT Tipoff Tournament at New York City.

Given these experiences, does Pearl believe guard play is enough to carry a team in March?

"Certainly, guards can win you games," he said. "You don't ever get caught without a good point guard or you're not going to have a very successful season."

After a thoughtful pause, the Vol coach continued:

"Are you saying what separates the 1 seeds from everybody else is a front-line NBA player? Perhaps. If you look at the 1 seeds, Florida's got a couple. Ohio State's got Greg and some really effective inside players. North Carolina's got a couple of pros on the front line, and so does Kansas."

Tennessee may have the least heralded front line among the 16 teams still chasing the national title. Still, Pearl thinks 6-9, 245-pound freshman Wayne Chism can be an elite-caliber big man someday.

"I think Wayne Chism will get there," Pearl said. "And Duke Crews (6-7 freshman) I think will get there. And Ryan Childress (6-9 sophomore) has improved dramatically."

Chism, Crews and Childress will try to contain Oden Thursday night when the Vols and Buckeyes hold a rematch in Sweet 16 action at San Antonio. Pearl hints that Tennessee may defend the Buckeye 7-footer a little differently this time.

"We'll always try to add a wrinkle here or there and we'll always try to tweak things," Pearl said. "But it's not a real secret as far as what we do, how we play and the things we're going to try to do."

Obviously, Tennessee will take the ball at Oden early in hopes of getting him in foul trouble. Obviously, the Vols will try to set a fast tempo in hopes of getting him fatigued.

If these strategies work, Tennessee has a chance to neutralize Oden and advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. If these strategies fail, the Vols had better hope guards really are the key in March Madness.

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