From College Park to Clemson and at many points in between, the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball toutnament starting Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., is of utmost interest.
The games usually are zany and upsets are often the rule rather than the exception. Still, that hardly prevents fans, writers and broadcasters from tossing up predictions at roughly the same rate Ernest Graham lofts 30-foot prayers.
This week, The Washington Post gave one player from each participating school a chance to join the pretournament prognosticating, asking each the same two questions:
If this were a six-team tournament, minus your own squad, which team would you pick to win? Also, which team would be your dark-horse choice?
The player responses, and a theory from (blush) a local expert, follow: Greg Manning Maryland
"I'd have to go with (North) Carolina. I think that because of the type of offense they run they're so patient ond it seems like any situation that comes up, they can adapt to. They have a great coach (Dean Smith) and they are the best degensive team in the league. Holding the ball sort of backfired for them against Duke but the teams played pretty evenly in the second half.
"For a dark horse I'd definitely have to say N.C. State. They have a lot of talent and everyone is counting them out. They have great players in Clyde Austin and Hawkeye Whitney. I think they have to be a little more patient. When they take moost of their shots from 20 feet out or more that's when they get beat.
"If theyy run their offense a little more patiently and get the ball inside to Hawkeye and Craig Watts they could be tough." Chubby Wells clemson
"It's so close, I definitely would have to go with North Carolins and Duke as the favorites. But North Carolina is so steady and Dean Smith always has been ready for big games.
"They're a big-game ball club. Since they lost to Duke, if they want to be sure about going to the NCAAs, they have to win the ACC tournament just like everybody else, and that's going to make them tough to beat. They are so consistent. That's the key. That and Dean Smith.
"He's something else. I call him the chess man. He knows how to do it. He could take a bunch of giris and put them in the league and make them come out respectable.
"I think Duke, State and Maryland are more talented, but Noorth Carolina plays so well together. They complement each other. They're just so smooth. I'm glad gor them. I really like them.
"For the dark horse I'm leaning toward Maryland, but they're so up and down, like a thermometer. Individually, they have the best talent. But they have to play colloctively.
"I talked to some of their guys and I think they really want to win. I had hoped we wouldn't have to come up against them. You don't know if they're going to come and play, or leave their brains locked up at home. They can beat anybody. But they can also lose to anybody." Dudley Bradley North Carolina
"I think Dike would probavly win. They have a lot of talent and they do a lot of things well. They play together and they play hard. They know their weaknesses and their strengths and they know that to win it they'll have to look more to their strengths and play away from their weaknesses.
"They know (Mike) Gminski is a dominating center, and when it (the ball) goes inside it's almost an automatic score. They have to try to go ahead early so they won'tbe forced to play a slowdown game. Duke is not a good man-to-man (defense) team so they'll also need to go ahead to play zone. And our tournament is very, very different. It's tournament to win the regular-season championship, when you meet each team twice.
"In a tournament you just have to play well and hard for three days, get up for three days, and you don't have to play team. There may be one team you have trouble against and it's possible you won't have to play that team.
"I would think N.C. State and Maryland would be dark-horse teams. State has a lot of talent and has lost quite a few close games. They just have to be confident and go and give their all. At times they've done a lot of things right, but things just haven't gone their way.
"Maryland has a lot of talent, has played tough competition and beaten some of the best teams in the country. I just think they have to put it together, play hrd and concentrate.
"They have to do little more helping out on defense. I've seen them once and played against thim twice and they've played well each time. They have so much indibidual talent, I think they can play well even without (injured guard Greg) Manning if they have to." Frank Johnson Wake Forest
"I think Duke is the favorite, going back to last year. This is when they start plauying their best ball. Their players have been there before and they know what it takes to play three great games one after another. It's not really their talent that makes them great, they just work together so wel. They're a great passing team. They have everybody moving, looking for each other. They're no quicker than anybody.
"For a dark horse I'd say Clemson. They're playing their best ball of the year right now, and they beat us pretty soundly. They can throw 10 guys at you and all 10 can hurt you. That rea That really wears you down. They do have a lot of young players but they have experienced players too -- Bobby Conrad, Derrick Johnson and Chubby Wells -- in the right positions, handling the ball, where you need them.
"To win the tournament you have to play three great games and have a little luck. You can't play five or six guys and win, especially by the last day. That's why Clemson is a good dark-horse tem, with 10 players fresh at all times." Lee Raker Virginia
"I would probably pick Duke even though they iost at Clemson. The way they played aginst Carolina Saturday night, they're showing that they're starting to play like they did last year. The way they're passing, moving on offense, they hadn't been doing that.
"I'd have to rate Duke a slight favorite over Carolina. I saw Carolina play the four corners in the first half Saturday. I was surprised at that. It's very strange. Carolina beat Duke once before, and if they go at Duke they'd have a better chance.
"For a dark-horse team I'd pick Clemson, just because of their personnel and their coach (Bill Foster). They're doing a good job defensively and they have all kinds of talent. They're kind of like State except they play a little better defense. They can go 10 or 11 deep and not be hurt. They beat Duke and it wasn't even close. They definitely have the talent, it's just a question of wllether they can be consistent enough to keep it going." Kenny Matthews N.C. State
"Without a doubt I'd probably say Duke. They have Jim Spanarkel. He's a senior, a captain and he's running the ball game. And with Gminski in the middle. you can't match up with them. You can't front him, or he'll get around you and slam it home.
"I wasn't real sutptised that Dean Smith played four corners against them, and Bill Foster played Smith's game. I think Smith knew he'd have to play them again and he wanted to get them thinking a little bit. I'm sure he wouldn't do that in a tournament game. In the tournament, people want to see a ball game. If the two teams just played, I think it would be close, maybe two points.
"But I still think the way Duke is playing right now, it would be hard to beat them.
"For a dark-horse team, I'd have to say Virginia. They are well-coached (by Terry Holland), they have all those guys under the boards and they are toughdown the stretch. I think the tournament will boil down to defense, and that's one reason why I like Virginia." Gene Banks Duke
"The favorite would be Carolina. They have good composure and a good nucleus of talent. The ond problem they have is whin they're not at home and they get behind it creates problems for them.
"When they get ahead they go to the four corners and that can cause trouble for other teams. They use a lot of strategies -- some of them work, and some of them don't. I would say that State is the most tallented team. But Carolina has disciplined, fundamentally sound players.
"The dark-horse team would be Virginia. I think there starting to play well now, they're getting in a groove and they have nothing to lose. I saw them play Maryland and they did a lot of good things. They kept their composure, they banged the boards, got off a lot of shots and they ran. Right now I would have to say they're playing the best they have this year." Beetty Cuniberti Washington Post
Since the author's alma mater, Southern California, has no chance to win this or any other conference championship, all seven ACC schools can be considered, and the guess is: Duke 86, Maryland 82, in the championship game.
North Carolina really is a better bet to be in that championship game instead of Maryland, but at least one person has to believe that a team of Maryland's talent with some help from the law of averages is due to beat the Tar Heels after eight straight losses to them.
This presumes that the Terrapins first get past Clemson. They should, first get past Clemson. They should, as long as Al King is able to play. Wells may be worried about the Terps leaving their brains at home, but I say just make sure to pack King.
This is the time of year when, if healthy, King turns his switch to "on" and clicks into the sort of magic player who can singularly determine the outcome of the game. If King falters, look for the basic Carolina-Duke final, with Duke on top.
The dark horse most likely to gum it up is Virginia, but the Cavaliers have the most hazardous road to the final, having to beat N.C. State Thursday and then probably Duke. Clemson's back-door play to the final game is more feasible, particularly if Maryland shows up in one of its mysterious fogs.
But no matter how these teams are shuffled, this dealer comes up with Duke as the ace. The Blue Devils have the best combination of talent, togetherness, coaching, momentum and tournament experience. Maryland may have more talent, perhaps North Varolina has better coaching and certainly anything can happen in the ACC tournament. But Duke has too much of too many good things to end up in the National Invitation Tournament.
Then again, maybe it would be just as logical to pick Southern California.