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Longshots to Favorites, Some Very Tough Calls

March 25, 2004|Robyn Norwood

In theory, anyway, the Final Four could be as crazy as this: Nevada, Saint Joseph's, Xavier and Vanderbilt.

Or it could be as staid and traditional as Kansas, Oklahoma State, Duke and Connecticut.

Sixteen teams will be whittled to four by Sunday night, and only one will be a winner April 5 in San Antonio.

Here's a look at why each could win it all -- and more important, why not -- from longshots to favorites:

NEVADA WOLF PACK

Why they can win: OK, so they can't win the whole thing. But, incredibly, the bracket has opened up enough that Nevada could reach the Final Four behind NBA prospect Kirk Snyder, gritty point guard Todd Okeson and inside leaper Kevinn Pinkney. Georgia Tech is probably a bigger obstacle than a possible matchup against a Kansas team they've already beaten.

Why they can't: No team seeded below eighth (Villanova in 1985) has won the NCAA tournament, and Nevada is a No. 10.

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Why they can win: Let's see, if Emeka Okafor's back goes out and Matt Freije scores 40, maybe, just maybe, the Commodores can upset Connecticut. But then they'd probably have to beat Syracuse.

Why they can't: Vanderbilt not only can't win the national championship, it probably can't reach the Elite Eight. UConn has defeated Vanderbilt the last two seasons because the Commodores haven't been able to handle Okafor.

ALABAMA BIRMINGHAM BLAZERS

Why they can win: The old Arkansas pell-mell press-and-run game they play is unfamiliar to most teams these days, and the Blazers do it well: Just ask Washington and Kentucky.

Why they can't: UAB won't win many half-court games, and opposing coaches have four more chances to find a way to slow UAB down -- if the Blazers don't collapse from exhaustion first.

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Why they can win: The Tide came from 13 down with less than 10 minutes to go to upset top-seeded Stanford, and the players have been toughened by seemingly endless comebacks and overtimes in the Southeastern Conference.

Why they can't: Their luck surviving last-second shots ought to be running out soon. Plus, they're too thin and too inexperienced, with a freshman, two sophomores, a junior and a senior in the starting five.

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

Why they can win: The Illini have good guards in Dee Brown and Deron Williams, although with three starters 6 feet 3 and under, their prospects are limited.

We're making a new rule: The national champion cannot come from the Big Ten or the Pac-10 this year. The leagues were just too bad. (The Pac-10, of course, already has taken itself out of the running with a 1-3 performance.)

XAVIER MUSKETEERS

Why they can win: They're hot -- winners of 15 of their last 16 -- and they're still the only team to beat Saint Joseph's. Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury said Xavier looked like a potential champion to him after the Musketeers smoked the second-seeded Bulldogs by 15.

Why they can't: They'd have to beat Texas and either Duke or Illinois just to make it to the Final Four. Plus, 10 teams already have beaten Xavier this season -- including Duquesne twice.

SYRACUSE ORANGEMEN

Why they can win: Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara know what it's like to win a national title, and because they're very different types of players, they give Syracuse good versatility.

Why they can't: You don't repeat after losing a player the caliber of Carmelo Anthony -- not in this era, anyway. Then there's this: Syracuse shoots only 64.1% from the free-throw line.

KANSAS JAYHAWKS

Why they can win: The St. Louis Regional theoretically opened up after Kentucky and Gonzaga lost, and the Jayhawks have been playing better lately, winning their first two tournament games by 25 and 15 points.

Why they can't: Because any of the other four teams in St. Louis is capable of being the one to come out of that region -- and because a team doesn't win the title the year after losing Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Roy Williams.

WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS

Why they can win: The Deacons are one of only two teams left that have beaten Duke, along with Georgia Tech. Freshman point guard Chris Paul is very good, and center Eric Williams makes the Deacons versatile.

Why they can't: The Deacons only defeated Virginia Commonwealth and Manhattan by a combined five points in the first two rounds. Plus, the East Rutherford Regional is the only one in which the top four seeded teams survived -- and Wake Forest is the fourth.

TEXAS LONGHORNS

Why they can win: The Longhorns have plenty of size and depth and a defensive stopper in Royal Ivey. Guard Brandon Mouton is capable of big scoring games, but when he's cold, Texas is in trouble.

Why they can't: Without T.J. Ford, Texas doesn't have a dominant point guard. Plus, Rick Barnes knows what it's like to be in Duke's "regional" -- he used to coach at Clemson.

GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS

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