03/17/04 — OPINION -- Who do you like?

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OPINION -- Who do you like?

By Gabe Whisnant
Published in Sports on March 17, 2004 2:00 PM

The question was bound to arise over the weekend as the conference tournaments started to wind down.

"Who do you like to win it?" I was finally asked.

I never really had an answer to the big question all season. My picks bounced around the balanced college landscape from Connecticut to Duke to Oklahoma State to Gonzaga.

I'll cut to the chase. I'm picking Stanford to win it.

Sophomore do-it-all Josh Childress reminds me of a sleeker version of Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony a year ago. The Cardinal play excellent defense and they have a great coach in Mike Montgomery. Stanford lost late in the season to Washington and recovered to win the Pac-10 tournament.

No doubt the Pac-10 was down this year, but that certain "they're due" factor pushed me over the top.

Before I get banned from Barbecue and Sweet Tea for life for picking a West Coast team over any of the Big Four schools -- all in the tournament together for the first time since 1991 -- I still believe there will be a strong ACC contingency in the Sweet 16.

In fact, I like three battle-tested ACC schools to get into the round of eight -- Duke, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech; with the Demon Deacons making a trip to the Final Four. I like Texas and Kentucky also to reach the Final Four with Wake and Stanford.

I thought Wake was primed to win the ACC Tournament, but I missed the boat a bit on that one. The Deacons are deep and talented enough to rebound and make a run at San Antonio.

Duke should be able to get to the Atlanta Regional without too much trouble before running into a physical Texas squad. The Devils' possible second-round tilt in Raleigh against Lute Olson and Arizona looks intriguing, though.

N.C. State may have nabbed a solid three-seed, but face an athletic No. 14 in Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round with a potential match-up against 11th-seeded Western Michigan in the second round. I like them to survive both upstarts before falling to Connecticut in the Sweet 16.

What about the Heels in their first trip to the Big Dance after a three-year absence?

It's tough to call a team with that much talent in its first five a true "sleeper," but many pundits are riding North Carolina into that possible dream clash at the Georgia Dome in the Elite Eight with archrival Duke.

I just don't see it.

They'll see too much size and depth in the second round in Denver against the Longhorns and former Clemson coach Rick Barnes.

Maryland's run through the ACC tourney was nothing short of magical -- knocking off a third, second and top seed on its way to the surprising title. The Terrapins jumped up to a four-seed, but they got no breaks in drawing Texas-El Paso in the first round. Fear the Miners. And don't just fear UTEP -- fear a handful of upsets in the first weekend.

I hope you all were paying attention to those mid-major conference tournaments on at all hours on ESPN over the past couple of weeks. I know, listening to Brad Daugherty call a game is tough, but gone are the days when picking high seeds will win your office pool (not that we get into anything like that around here).

Along with UTEP, Manhattan, Murray State, East Tennessee State, Western Michigan are all underrated and dangerous teams seeded 11th or higher. Xavier could make a run as a seven seed.

The bottom line -- expected the unexpected. It's truly what makes this tournament the greatest sports spectacle all year.