Katz: Step it up!

Syracuse did so last year. Who will this year?

The NCAA Tournament doesn't care what you did last week, or the past four months. No matter a team's seed, region or mindset heading into the Dance, the next three weeks are the great equalizer.

So, as games tip off Thursday, it's time the players and teams highlighted below step it up or get left behind. And as for the first-round matchups themselves, plenty of questions surround each of the 32 games over the next two days.

ATLANTA | EAST RUTHERFORD | ST. LOUIS

Phoenix Region It's time to step up ...

Matt Freije, Vanderbilt: Freije averaged 18.5 points a game and was a legit SEC player of the year candidate. But Freije needs to step it up in the NCAA Tournament. He must carry the Commodores to a win over Western Michigan. Vanderbilt has a golden chance to advance in this field considering the next round (NC State or Louisiana-Lafayette) is winnable, too. All eyes will be on Vandy and whether or not the Commodores can hold up to their lofty status of being one of the top SEC teams earlier in the season.

Ben Gordon, Connecticut: Gordon was sensational in the Big East tournament. He scored 29 points the first two games and then 23 in the title win over Pittsburgh. But Gordon will be called upon to produce just as well in the NCAA Tournament. No one knows how effective Emeka Okafor will be because of his back injury. Charlie Villanueva might be limited by an ankle injury, too. The onus will be on Gordon to be the star player in this tournament.

Maryland: The Terps are on a great run right now. Maryland beat NC State on the road, took out Virginia and then won the ACC tournament, capped by a title win over Duke on Sunday. The Terps were rewarded with a No. 4 seed. But will the Terps live up to that kind of seed? Maryland may need to step it up to honor the selection committee by winning a few games. It may not be fair to put the onus on the Terps after going from the bubble to a No. 4 seed. But they did receive the seed and now the pressure is on them to live up to it.

Southern Illinois: The Salukis were an at-large team at No. 9. So, the question is did they deserve a No. 9 out of the Missouri Valley? Southern Illinois must step it up to prove that they were deserving of the seed. The Salukis didn't have that big-time win this season that would show they are capable of beating Stanford. But the Salukis must play well to show that the selection committee did the right thing by giving them a No. 9.

DePaul: The Blue Demons tied for first place, but got the top spot in the Conference USA tournament. DePaul lost to Cincinnati in the title game. DePaul got a No. 7 seed. Now they've got to advance to show that Conference USA was deserving of lower seeds. DePaul must beat Dayton to show that it's seed was deserving.

THURSDAY'S GAMES Seattle (1) Stanford vs. (16) Texas-San Antonio: Will the Cardinal get decent production out of Justin Davis? Will Davis duplicate his solid efforts in the Pac-10 tournament? Will the Cardinal be able to crush an opponent early and then put them away? Will the Cardinal play like a dominant team?

(8) Alabama vs. (9) Southern Illinois: Will Kennedy Winston bust out with a big-time performance? Will Earnest Shelton be a go-to scorer for the Tide? How will the Tide handle Southern Illinois's Darren Brooks? Will Brooks be able to frustrate the Tide defensively? Will this game live up to its 8-9 seeding and be extremely close?

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