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.


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?

Denver (5) Syracuse vs. (12) BYU: How will the Cougars handle Syracuse's zone? How will Hakim Warrick and Craig Forth deal with the wide-body of Rafael Araujo inside? How will the crowd react to the Cougars after they played in Denver last week in the Mountain West Conference tournament?

(4) Maryland vs. (13) UTEP: Will John Gilchrist play with as much emotion against UTEP as he did against Duke? Will D.J. Strawberry be able to go full strength against the Miners? How will the Miners handle the NCAA Tournament for the first time with this staff and players? Will UTEP have any kind of homecourt advantage with the game being played in Denver?

Buffalo, N.Y. (7) DePaul vs. (10) Dayton: Whose guards will prevail in what could end up being a physical game inside? How effective will Dayton's big men be at getting DePaul's Andre Brown into foul trouble? How will both coaches handle their first head coaching experience in an NCAA Tournament game?

(2) Connecticut vs. (15) Vermont: How nimble will Okafor be during the game? Will Villanueva be full strength on a bum ankle? How will Josh Boone defend Vermont's Taylor Coppenrath? Can T.J. Sorrentine get past Taliek Brown at the point? Will Vermont have a third scorer to make this game close?

FRIDAY'S GAMES Orlando, Fla. (6) Vanderbilt vs. (11) Western Michigan: How will a Western Michigan team capable of more than just one win this week handle the spotlight of the NCAA Tournament? How will Ben Reed and Mike Williams deal with Vanderbilt's strong, physical play? How will Steve Hawkins coach on the biggest stage in his career?

(3) NC State vs. (14) Louisiana-Lafayette: Will the Wolfpack play like they did in finishing second during the ACC's regular season? Will the Wolfpack be able to get the necessary spacing against a more frenzied Louisiana team? Will Louisiana be able to translate its close losses in "up" games against Arizona, Xavier and Dayton into playing well enough to beat NC State?

Atlanta Region Arizona: The Wildcats better show up in this tournament. Arizona has underachieved throughout the season. There's no excuse for the Wildcats' erratic play. They have the talent to be a much higher seed. But the Wildcats haven't met expectations this season. They crushed Texas in New York. They won at Oregon. But, come on, this team is better than a No. 9 seed. It's time to show up and win some games in this tournament.

Shavlik Randolph, Duke: Randolph actually was talking about going to the NBA out of high school. Well, if that were the case, he hasn't lived up to those expectations. Randolph hasn't hit a consistent stride the past two seasons. He has the potential to be a complimentary player to Shelden Williams, not just an occasional backup. Randolph needs to produce a few breakout games for the Blue Devils to make a run and win the title.

Francisco Garcia, Louisville: Garcia was a player of the year candidate early in the season. But he hasn't been able to hit that consistent streak for more than a few games. Sure, he has been injured, but Garcia needs to carry this team. He has the ability to lead and has been sensational at times. But he needs to be more assertive and take over games for the Cards to make a deep run.

Air Force: The Falcons won the Mountain West by two games but they were criticized for getting an at-large bid because of their weak nonconference schedule. So, the onus is on the Falcons to have a good showing in Denver. No one is expecting them to beat North Carolina, but the cadets must give the Tar Heels a game. If they don't then they have just fed into all the critics who don't think they deserved a bid. Air Force had a great regular season, but being competitive is a must this week after losing to Colorado State in the first round of the MWC tournament.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs deserved consideration for a No. 1 seed. Their loss in the SEC quarterfinals dropped them to a No. 2 seed. So, now the Bulldogs have to prove that they are a title contender. The Bulldogs can't bow out early. They must show that they are worthy of a No. 1 seed by blowing through the first two rounds. Mississippi State has the talent to get to the Final Four. They can't lose before the second weekend.

THURSDAY'S GAMES Raleigh, N.C. (1) Duke vs. (16) Alabama State: How healthy is Chris Duhon? Will Shelden Williams stay out of foul trouble? Will Coach K stick with Shavlik Randolph long enough for him to get quality minutes? How long will Alabama State stay in the game?

(8) Seton Hall vs. (9) Arizona: Will Salim Stoudamire hit a consistent stride scoring? Can Andre Barrett dominate Mustafa Shakur at the point for Seton Hall? Which Arizona team will show up? The one that beat Oregon on the road and Texas in New York or the one that lost to Oregon State in Corvallis and to Washington three times? Can Seton Hall's much maligned inside game keep Channing Frye, Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala off the glass?

Denver (6) North Carolina vs. (11) Air Force: Will the Tar Heels play up to their potential and crush the Falcons early in the game? Will Rashad McCants continue his torrid streak from the perimeter? Can Sean May get position inside against a stingy Air Force team? Will the Falcons be able to slice the Tar Heels apart? Will Air Force have a decided homecourt advantage less than 90 minutes from the Academy?

(3) Texas vs. (14) Princeton: How effective will Princeton's patient style be against the Longhorns? Will Texas be able to assert its frontcourt dominance with Jason Klotz and James Thomas? Who will the Longhorns rely on at the point among Edgar Moreno, Kenton Paulino and Royal Ivey?

FRIDAY'S GAMES Columbus, Ohio (5) Illinois vs. (12) Murray State: How much will the Racers be affected by the suspension of Kelvin Brown? Will Adam Chiles be effective, considering the school allowed him to play instead of suspending him like Brown? Can Murray State's pressing system still be a factor with a limited roster against the uptempo Illini? Will the Illini be able to lean heavily on Deron Williams and Dee Brown in the tournament, just like they did in the Big Ten?

(4) Cincinnati vs. (13) East Tennessee State: Can Tim Smith play catch-me-if-you-can with Cincinnati? Smith's quickness could be a problem for the Bearcats at the point but will he have enough help from Zakee Wadood inside against the Bearcats' offensive rebounders like Eric Hicks and Kareem Johnson? Will the Bearcats be focused enough to dispatch East Tennessee State?

Orlando, Fla. (7) Xavier vs. (10) Louisville: How will the Musketeers respond after a brutal four-game run to the A-10 conference tournament title? How will Louisville be able to defend the bigger, stronger guards in Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers? How effective will Anthony Myles be inside against an erratic Louisville frontcourt? Will the Cardinals be loose after backing into the tournament as a No. 10 seed?

(2) Mississippi State vs. (15) Monmouth: How soon will this game be over? How can Monmouth have any shot against a team that should have been a one seed if it didn't lose in the SEC tournament? How effective will Lawrence Roberts be with a bum ankle? How will the Bulldogs handle playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder for being overlooked in this bracket?

East Rutherford It's time to step up ...

Saint Joseph's: The Hawks have to at least get to the second weekend to quiet some of the critics. The Hawks know they've got to step it up in the tournament after their abysmal performance in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Saint Joseph's has the backcourt to get to the Final Four. The Hawks have to show it this weekend. There is no excuse. Saint Joseph's should crush Liberty in the first round and then move past the second-round foe, too.

Florida: The Gators were on a nice roll before the loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game. The Gators have done well with the adversity thrown against them. Florida is in the dreaded 5-12 game. The Gators are ripe for an upset. But they've got to avoid falling flat in the first round.

Manhattan: The Jaspers are in position to pull off the upset. Bobby Gonzalez needs to go on a run to raise his stock in the coaching circles. This is his shot to pull off the major upset that he needs. Florida is there for the taking. And that means the Jaspers can't wilt through this one, as they did a bit last year in giving Syracuse a scare in the first round. They've got to step up and grab this chance.

Wisconsin: Everyone assumes the Badgers will beat Richmond and Pittsburgh because the Badgers are playing in an adopted homecourt in Milwaukee. If that's the case, the Badgers better step it up and win this sub-regional. Wisconsin has a shot to get to the Sweet 16 at home. They've gotten the free pass by playing in Milwaukee, an apparent favor for being dropped to a No. 6 seed.

Memphis: The Tigers bowed out too early last season. They had the talent to advance further but weren't able to get past Arizona State in the first round. The Tigers should beat South Carolina. They have better talent. This is a chance for John Calipari to stick around a bit longer in the tournament. This is their time to step it up and advance.

THURSDAY'S GAMES Buffalo, N.Y. (1) Saint Joseph's vs. (16) Liberty: Will the Hawks play with the same purpose and passion they did prior to the Atlantic 10 tournament? Will Jameer Nelson and Delonte West live up to their billing as the top backcourt in the country? Will Nelson play like he is the national player of the year and take over this game? How will the Hawks handle being the top seed?

(8) Texas Tech vs. (9) Charlotte: How will the 49ers handle Andre Emmett? Will Texas Tech's perimeter quickness bother the 49ers? Can Brandan Plavich and Demon Brown go off from the 3-point line? Will Curtis Withers and Martin Iti cause problems for the Red Raiders inside?

Raleigh, N.C. (5) Florida vs. (12) Manhattan: How much will Matt Walsh be bothered by that nasty blister on his right foot? Will Anthony Roberson be able to go off from the perimeter? Does Manhattan have anyone who can hang with David Lee in the post? Will Luis Flores be able to score at will against the Gators?

(4)Wake Forest vs. (13) VCU: Will VCU be able to defend Eric Williams in the post? How will VCU deal with Wake Forest's three-guard lineup, considering all can handle the ball and dribble-penetrate? How will Chris Paul handle his first NCAA Tournament game?

FRIDAY'S GAMES Milwaukee, Wis. (6) Wisconsin vs. (11) Richmond: How much of the Milwaukee crowd will be cheering for the Badgers? Will Richmond be able to block out the road effect and play as well as it did in wins at Xavier, Kansas and Colorado? How tight will Wisconsin be playing in Milwaukee? Will the pressure be too great on the Badgers? Will Devin Harris dominate this game?

(3)Pittsburgh vs. (14) Central Florida: Will the Panthers lock up everything UCF does? How will UCF score? Will Pittsburgh's Carl Krauser be the MVP of this game or will UCF struggle to hang with Jaron Brown more? How effective will the low-post game of Chris Taft be against the Knights?

Kansas, City, Mo. (7) Memphis vs. (10) South Carolina: Will Sean Banks continues his productivity in the NCAA Tournament? How good a leader will Antonio Burks be in the NCAAs? How will the Gamecocks deal with Memphis' quickness on the perimeter? How will the Tigers deal with South Carolina's tougher frontcourt?

(2) Oklahoma State vs. (15) Eastern Washington: How will the Eagles feel going into their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance? Will they even keep it close for the first 10 minutes? How will they be able to score from the perimeter if Tony Allen and John Lucas are in their face every possession?

St. Louis It's time to step up ...

Ryan Gomes, Providence: OK, Ryan, we pumped you up as a ESPN.com All-American because you deserved it throughout the season. Now it's your time to carry the Friars past Pacific and then into the Sweet 16. The Friars have slipped of late, losing three straight to finish the season. Gomes has been the most consistent player on the team. But he might have to do even more during the Friars' run. Gomes has to be even more assertive with his teammates. First-team All-Americans carry teams in the tournament. This is Gomes' time to shine.

Kansas: The Jayhawks underachieved this season. It's Kansas' time to step it up and be a player in this bracket. Kansas was given a No. 4 seed and two games in its backyard in Kansas City. There's no reason why the Jayhawks can't beat UIC and the winner of Providence-Pacific. Kansas has one of the best big men in Wayne Simien and should be able to exploit anything the Flames throw at the Jayhawks.

Michigan State: The Spartans failed to win its Top-25 games earlier in the season. They had a great shot to win the Big Ten outright, but got beaten by Wisconsin at home in overtime. This is Michigan State's chance to make a statement. The Spartans have the talent to get to the Sweet 16. The expectations were downgraded when the Spartans lost all of those big-time games earlier in the nonconference. This is their shot to erase any bad vibes from earlier in the season.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs got a deserved No. 2 seed. But they better advance to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga has its best chance to get to the Final Four. This is a very winnable bracket for the Zags. Beating Valparaiso shouldn't be an issue. Even taking out Michigan State or Nevada shouldn't be a reach for Gonzaga, either. The expectations are for Gonzaga to advance deep in the tourney. So, the Zags have got to step it up.

Kirk Snyder, Nevada: Snyder and the rest of the Wolf Pack are quick to disrespect their opponents with a few verbal volleys. Well, if that's the case then Nevada better step it up and produce. Nevada got in with a win over UTEP. There's no guarantee that the Wolf Pack would have made the field if they didn't beat UTEP. They better beat Michigan State or else all that talk will be wasted.

THURSDAY'S GAMES Seattle (7) Michigan State vs. (10) Nevada: Will the Wolf Pack back up their verbiage of being able to beat the Spartans? Will the Spartans shoot as well as they did during their run to second place in the conference? Will Michigan State get back to checking, defending and rebounding as well as the Spartans did last season? Will Kirk Snyder go off with a flurry of points on the biggest stage of his career?

(2) Gonzaga vs. (15) Valparaiso: Will Valpo play as poorly as it did against Duke late last month? Will Gonzaga's inside-out combo of Blake Stepp and Ronny Turiaf prove to be unstoppable? Will the Zags be a bit tight with their highest seed ever? How will the Zags handle the expectation in Seattle that they should dominate this region and get to St. Louis?

FRIDAY'S GAMES Columbus, Ohio (1) Kentucky vs. (16) Florida A&M: How much does Kentucky's suffocating defense swallow the Rattlers? Can Terrence Woods effectively get his shots off against Kentucky's defense? Will the Wildcats be as dominating against FAMU as they were against the Gators last Sunday in the SEC title game?

(8) Washington vs. (9) UAB: Who will be able to stop the transition game? Both teams love to get up and run, so which one will be more effective? How will the matchup of 5-8 Nate Robinson and 5-11 Morris Finley play out?

Kansas City, Mo. (5) Providence vs. (12) Pacific: How will Pacific handle Providence's zone? Will the Friars be able to snap out of their offensive funk? Can Ryan Gomes be a dominant presence in this game?

(4) Kansas vs. (13) Illinois-Chicago: Do the Flames have a player who can possibly hang with Wayne Simien? How will Aaron Miles and Keith Langford handle Flames' guard Cedrick Banks? How will the veterans, all five senior starters, deal with the NCAA Tournament experience?

Milwaukee, Wis. (6) Boston College vs. (11) Utah: How will Tim Frost handle Craig Smith of Boston College? Who on the Eagles can stay with Nick Jacobson? How will the Eagles defend Utah's patient offense? Will the Eagles play as consistently as they did last week in the Big East tournament? Will the Utes be as fortunate as they were last week in Denver?

(3) Georgia Tech vs. (14) Northern Iowa: How can UNI handle the Yellow Jackets' big, strong, physical guards? Who can possibly defend Luke Schenscher in the post? Can the Panthers get off the quality shots they need to beat the Yellow Jackets? Will Georgia Tech play up to its potential and dispatch UNI rather quickly?

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.