COLLEGE PARK -- The prevailing wisdom entering tomorrow's NCAA tournament is that nothing short of a hijack of the Nevada-Las Vegas team bus -- driven, of course, by NCAA enforcement division head David Berst -- will stop the Runnin' Rebels from capturing their second straight championship.
But, listen up, for Maryland coach Gary Williams -- forced by NCAA sanctions to observe this year's proceedings from the sidelines -- will tell just who and how the UNLV juggernaut, now rolling with a 41-game winning streak, can be stopped.
Williams' nominee is North Carolina, because of its depth and size.
"They've got a couple of players, not as many as Vegas, but guys who are at that level," Williams said of the Tar Heels, the top seed in the East Regional.
"Rick Fox has moved to another level. [Pete] Chilcutt isn't as flashy as some guys, but he's been around and he's 6-10 and he's strong. And they can keep rotating the 7-footers in there if they have to. I think that's important."
Williams, whose Terrapins dropped two regular-season games to the fourth-ranked Tar Heels this year, says North Carolina is quicker and more physical than advertised, which would help against the Rebels.
"Carolina's got pretty good quickness. Nobody's as quick as Vegas, but you're talking about a situation with Carolina where if they play great again and Vegas is off their game, then things like that [an upset] can happen," said Williams.
The Tar Heels, who are making their 21st consecutive tournament appearance, would need to reach the championship game to meet UNLV, and Williams believes that their enigmatic point guard, senior King Rice, is the key to their fortunes.
"Can he take that kind of pressure and handle the ball? They all talked about Fox, but I thought King Rice did a great job against [Duke's Bobby] Hurley," said Williams. "I don't think he had a turnover in the whole game. If you can do that against Duke's defense, you're doing pretty well."
Michigan State, the preseason Big Ten favorite, stumbled to an 18-10 record but defeated Ohio State in the middle of the year and seemed to catch fire at the end of the season. The Spartans are seeded fifth in the West and would meet UNLV in the regional semifinals.
Seton Hall (22-8), the Big East tournament champion, won close tournament games over Pittsburgh and Villanova then thumped Georgetown Sunday to win the Big East title. The Pirates drew the third seed in the West, where they made their charge to the national championship game two years ago.
"Their defense and their size allows them to stay with anybody," Williams said. "They didn't shoot well in the Big East tourney. If they get some shooting, they'll be tough."
Williams says that western travel is good for schools like Seton Hall and Michigan State because the distance away from home promotes better focus to the cause: the national championship.
"We played out West the year I was at Boston College. I like that. You're away from everything," said Williams.
"You have your reporters covering you who cover you the whole year, but the fans aren't there, so to speak, unless you get to the Final Four. That's not all bad for your players. It allows them to focus in."
In the East bracket that will play at Cole Field House tomorrow, Williams says Syracuse, the region's second seed, is the team to beat. He adds, however, that the Orangemen, who lost in the Big East quarterfinal round after winning the regular-season title, can be had, especially by their opening opponent, Richmond.
"They have a tougher game than they think they do against Richmond, because of the way Richmond plays. It's like playing Princeton."
But when pressured to pick an overall tournament winner, Williams is following the crowd. He also says he wouldn't mind getting a chance at UNLV. "Vegas is the best team. I would never dispute that. But I'd take a chance for one game. I always think I can beat somebody one time. I wouldn't want to play them the best out of seven, but that's not what it is.However, I wouldn't pick against them."