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Aldridge focuses on present, not NBA

LaMarcus Aldridge insists he's yet to make up his mind. Maybe he'll declare for the NBA draft after this, his sophomore year at Texas. Or maybe he'll go the route of Tim Duncan, who resisted the urge of pro riches and played four years at Wake Forest, honing his game and ultimately easing his transition to the next level.

"Do I have to leave?" Aldridge wondered aloud Friday. "I'm not really looking at it as if I have to leave. I haven't really thought about it right now. Coach and I are going to talk about it at the end of the season. Today I am not even thinking about it."

It's hard to tell if Aldridge is being diplomatic, deferring to his teammates and the task at hand, or if he's truly undecided whether to declare for this year's draft. He nearly made the jump right out of high school, back before the NBA outlawed such leaps. It took a conversation with Shaquille O'Neal, who'd arranged a meeting over lunch, to convince Aldridge there was immense benefit to attending college. College is fun, Shaq told him. College gives a player the chance to develop his game. Once basketball becomes a business, either you're ready or you're not. No one's holding your hand.

But Aldridge, a smooth 6-foot-11 center, has reached the point where there's almost nowhere to go but down. Never mind that Vince Young, quarterback of the national-champion Longhorns, is The Man on the Texas campus. Not even Young can match the pro appeal of Aldridge, who's expected to go no worse than No. 2 overall if he opts for the NBA after this season (UConn's Rudy Gay is his acknowledged competition for the No. 1 spot).

""His athleticism is what impresses me the most," said LSU center Glen "Big Baby" Davis. "I have always remembered how he could run like a deer. With those long legs he can spring and run the floor. Over the years he has gotten more physical. He has let his presence be felt."

If Aldridge stays at Texas, the Longhorns loom as a national power for another two seasons. If he leaves, he eliminates the chance of something going awry. His freshman season was halved when an injury suffered Jan. 15 against Nebraska necessitated hip surgery. Is staying in college worth the risk when there's millions on the table? Bet on this being his last go-around with the Longhorns.

Aldridge was an unstoppable force in Texas' dramatic win over outsized West Virginia on Thursday night. He was 8 for 8 from the field in the first half, finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds. The going will be more treacherous today when Texas plays LSU for a berth in the Final Four.

Texas-LSU isn't the marquee matchup everyone, or at least CBS, anticipated. While Texas versus Duke would have commanded a prime-time slot, the Longhorns and the Tigers will go at it late this afternoon, the first game of the day's doubleheader. It's unfortunate, really, because this looms as one of the more intriguing games of the tournament, not to mention an NBA scout's dream.

Guard play, considered so vital to March success, becomes secondary to what takes place in the paint. Expect more scenes like the one Thursday night, when West Virginia center Kevin Pittsnogle took an elbow and left to have plugs inserted up his bleeding nose.

The Longhorns are a solid four deep up front, with Aldridge, 6-8 Brad Buckman, 6-5 heavyweight P.J. Tucker in the starting roles and 6-7 Mike Williams coming off the bench.

"Those three guys are going to create some problems for us," said LSU coach John Brady. "Hopefully we can find a way to not let Aldridge just turn around and shoot jump shots on us. Certainly Texas has the quality of athlete that we do, so it should be an interesting game and a fun game to watch."

LSU counters with equal size, grit and athleticism. Davis, the Tigers' 6-9, 310-pound center, has hoarded the postseason spotlight with his engaging personality. But it's 6-9 freshman forward Tyrus Thomas who has NBA GM's salivating over his long-term potential. Of his five blocks Thursday, two of them were on Duke All-American Shelden Williams -- one of them on a dunk attempt. Add 6-7 freshman Tasmin Mitchell to the mix, summon 6-8 junior Darnell Lazare from the bench, and the young but rapidly maturing Tigers have the perfect blend to give the Longhorns fits.

"[Against Duke] I thought they were great defensively," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "Maybe as good a defensive effort as I've seen this year. They just did a great job using their athletic ability."

This won't be a game about the three. It won't come down to which team can capitalize with finesse.

"We are a tough team," Davis said. "Texas is a tough team also. That is why it is going to be a battle. You have two teams that love to compete."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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