Top this: possible 1 vs. 2

Illinois, N. Carolina victories would send top 2 to title game

It would be first time in 30 years

Final Four

April 02, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Illinois had just completed yesterday's public practice at the Edward Jones Dome. Coach Bruce Weber nodded to the next team to take the Final Four floor, when North Carolina point guard Raymond Felton stuck out his right hand in a more formal greeting.

Louisville, Michigan State and history contend that that handshake will not repeat itself Monday night, when the NCAA decides its men's basketball champion.

Oddsmakers and common wisdom may point to a final between No. 1-ranked Illinois and No. 2 North Carolina, but it's been 30 years since college basketball's championship game matched its top-ranked teams, and tonight's semifinal favorites are confronted by opponents capable of extending that drought.

The Fighting Illini were the last team to lose this season and have been atop the polls since early December, but Game 1 sends them up against Rick Pitino's Cardinals, who own the nation's longest winning streak.

Game 2 features the Tar Heels, the season-long leader in an Atlantic Coast Conference that may have been the most hyped league ever, up against Tom Izzo's Spartans, who proved that the Big Ten was actually deeper at the top with a pair of marquee wins in the Austin Regional.

Roy Williams has described the day before the NCAA semifinals as the best in his business, as long as you're coaching one of the Final Four teams. Weber and the Fighting Illini bathed in the glow of 20,000 orange-clad fans at yesterday's practices.

In 1975, that tradition included a standing ovation for John Wooden. Three days later, in his final college game, Wooden's UCLA dynasty beat Kentucky, the last time Nos. 1 and 2 in the Associated Press poll met in the NCAA final. The 1979 and 1999 finals matched Nos. 1 and 3.

Illinois has been No. 1 since Dec. 7. Since the end of January, North Carolina has been No. 2 all but one week. It was only last year that the NCAA began placing its top two seeds in opposite halves of the draw, but that 30-year stretch shows the folly of polls, prognosticating, and looking ahead.

"I can't think about them right now," Felton said of Illinois. "They're on the other side."

The inside matchup of Michigan State's Paul Davis and North Carolina's Sean May is crucial, but Felton against freshman Drew Neitzel provides the night's strongest contrast. At the beginning of the season, Felton was regarded as the nation's best pure point guard and Neitzel was on the Spartans' bench. He has admired Felton from afar since the summer of 2001.

"Five Star camp in Pittsburgh, I had just finished my ninth grade and he was going into his senior year of high school," Neitzel said. "I really liked his game. I learned a lot by watching him."

Felton's foul trouble caused some scary moments for North Carolina last weekend at the Carrier Dome. Neitzel has never played in a dome, other than a 1994 Punt Pass and Kick competition at the Pontiac Silverdome.

"I finished third in the state," Neitzel said. "That was good experience."

The Spartans, a fifth seed, are loose after a surprise run through the Austin Regional. Manhandled by George Washington in the BB&T Classic four months ago, Michigan State is looking to add to the growth that delivered regional wins over Duke and Kentucky.

"I feel like we've kind of had to apologize for being here," Izzo said. "We beat two of the best programs and two of the best coaches, but I don't look at myself as a spoiler."

Up against Illinois, Louisville comes in with a considerably larger chip on its shoulder. Pitino, the only coach here besides Izzo with an NCAA title, got his at Kentucky in 1996. Now he runs the Cardinals, who are overlooked in their home state nearly as much as they are here.

"Other than the city of Louisville, the whole state roots for Kentucky," junior guard Taquan Dean said. "We're not going to be tight at all. We always play better with our back against the wall."

In Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams, Illinois has the most heralded three-guard attack in the nation, but Dean, Francisco Garcia and Larry O'Bannon figure to give them fits.

"We have the confidence that we can exploit them," O'Bannon said.

Both teams are accustomed to dealing with issues larger than a big deficit in a regional final.

When Garcia's brother was murdered in December 2003, he leaned on Dean, who 15 years later still has nightmares of being 6 and finding his mother dead. Illinois has rallied around Weber, whose mother took ill four weeks ago at a Fighting Illini game and passed away.

Louisville trailed West Virginia by 20 in the Albuquerque Regional final. Illinois was down by 15 to Arizona with four minutes left in Chicago, when it rallied and got to keep a team tradition going.

"Everyday they start practice with a little chant," Weber said. "Part of it is `national champion.' We'll see if it was rhetoric or really meant something."

At a glance

At Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

Today's semifinals

Illinois (36-1) vs. Louisville (33-4), 6:07 p.m.

North Carolina (31-4) vs. Michigan State (26-6), 8:47 p.m. approximately

Monday's title game

Semifinal winners, 9:18 p.m.

TV: All games on chs. 13, 9

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