Orioles are set to hoop it up, with N. Carolina their top pick


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There is one off-field diversion to every major-league spring training camp, and it begins tonight with the start of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Hoops will be a major topic of conversation from now until Opening Day, when the championship game is played. And if a random sampling of Orioles players is any indication, North Carolina will beat either Kentucky or Michigan in the final game.

Among those working out at the major-league complex yesterday, North Carolina was the most predominantly mentioned team. But the variety of selections reflects the feeling that there are as many as six or seven teams who could win six more games.

"North Carolina -- if [point guard] Derrick Phelps is healthy," said Mike Mussina, when asked for his choice.

Two-time defending champion Duke also garnered support. "I still like them, for some reason," said Cal Ripken, an avid basketball player himself. "I think they might get it together if Grant Hill is OK."

Jeffrey Hammonds, like Mussina a product of Stanford University, opted for the team from his home state.

"Got to stick with Seton Hall," said last year's No. 1 draft pick, who is from New Jersey.

Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky also drew some support, but even Ben McDonald, a strong advocate of his alma mater LSU and the Southeastern Conference, opted for North Carolina.

Although several said they didn't follow college basketball very much, most of the Orioles have strong regional loyalties, especially those who came into professional ball from the college ranks.

But, while they will follow the progress of the tournament, the players for the most part will do it on an individual basis. Many have families present during spring training, which precludes sizable gatherings watching the games together.

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