2 for 1: Illinois, UNC seek crowning glory

In anticipated title game, No. 1 Illini, No. 2 Tar Heels sprint toward finish line

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

Final Four

April 04, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Some of the most enduring moments from college basketball's championship game involve North Carolina.

In 1957, the Tar Heels needed three overtimes to subdue Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain. Michael Jordan's jumper from the left side topped Georgetown in 1982. Michigan's Chris Webber gifted them with a bonehead timeout in 1993.

Did any of those games enjoy the anticipation that accompanies tonight's NCAA tournament final between the Tar Heels and Illinois?

"The basketball gods looked over college basketball this year," Fighting Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "It's just a great scenario. Whether you say they have the most talent, we have the best team, it's the two teams that have been there all along and we're playing for the national championship.

"I'm sure CBS is happy."

The viewership tonight might not top the highest-rated college game ever, the 1979 final that featured the star power of Michigan State's Magic Johnson and Indiana State's Larry Bird, but it has elite teams and a match of historic proportion.

The NCAA made Illinois and North Carolina the tournament's top two seeds. An Ohio State buzzer-beater away from a perfect record, Illinois (37-1) has been ranked No. 1 since early December. Finally in sync with Roy Williams, North Carolina (32-4) has been No. 2 for all but one week since early February.

It's the first NCAA final in 30 years between the top two teams in the Associated Press poll.

How defined is the distance these two have put between themselves and the rest of the nation?

Two days ago, Raymond Felton shifted North Carolina into gear, and it drove by Michigan State by 16 points. With Deron Williams doing old-school work at both ends, Illinois beat Louisville by 15. It has been 40 years since the semifinals had less drama, as UCLA and Michigan won by 19 and 17, respectively, in 1965.

The combined margin of victory for Connecticut and Georgia Tech in last year's semifinals was three points. The Huskies then blew out the Yellow Jackets, but the nearly 48,000 who will cram into the Edward Jones Dome all expect to see a tight affair that could require overtime.

It's Chicagoans Dee Brown and Luther Head, players from the "Second City," against key catches like Sean May and Rashad McCants, who have restored a North Carolina tradition that chafed in the past decade over playing second fiddle on Tobacco Road to Duke.

It's North Carolina's eighth championship game, but the first since Dean Smith won his second title in 1993. The 100th season of Illinois basketball, conversely, will end with its first NCAA final.

Before he was a Bull, Jordan was a Tar Heel, but he's in the minority in a town where Saturday's tailgating looked like a Big Ten football game. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's weather map displays Missouri and Illinois. The drive to Chicago isn't much longer than the one to Kansas City, Mo., and the orange tint will only grow stronger tonight.

The stakes and setting were radically different when they met in the 2003 ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

"It was in Greensboro," Roy Williams said, "not across the [Mississippi] river from a lot of orange."

It was the fourth game for both Williams at North Carolina and Weber at Illinois. The Fighting Illini are 48-1 under Weber when they get to 70 points, the only blemish being that 88-81 loss to the Tar Heels.

He raves over North Carolina's style. What team did Williams point to earlier this season, when he needed to reinforce the importance of sharing?

"Coach pulled out a clip, and [Illinois] just moved the ball about 15 times, with no dribble," May said. "I watch college basketball all year, and they distribute the ball better than any team I've seen."

Said Williams: "I told them, `Watch this.' That's the way I think basketball should be played."

Every Illinois starter averages in double figures, and sixth man Marvin Williams gives North Carolina five at that level. Breaking off a miss or a make, the Tar Heels led the nation in scoring. They most like to run off steals, which could be hard to come by, as the Fighting Illini set an NCAA record for assist-to-turnover ratio.

North Carolina erupted for 54 points in the second half Saturday, the most Michigan State allowed in a half all season. Illinois played the Spartans once, and won, 81-68, in East Lansing.

These two elegant teams are built for speed, the only banger being May, who is celebrating his 21st birthday. He wore down Paul Davis in the semifinals, and is stronger than Fighting Illini center James Augustine, who must draw him away from the basket.

The Illinois players wear T-shirts that read, "Finish the job." North Carolina's say, "Practice doesn't make perfect. It makes champions."

Marvin Williams, the 6-foot-9 Tar Heels freshman, could be the first player taken in the NBA draft. In Felton, May and McCants, North Carolina has three of the 30 finalists for the John Wooden Award, as many as the 11 teams in the Big Ten combined, adding to the perception that their work ethic isn't up to the Fighting Illini's.

"That makes me upset," Felton said. "We didn't win 32 games just off talent."

Tonight's men's title game

Matchup: Illinois (37-1) vs. North Carolina (32-4).

Site: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis.

Time/TV: 9:21, chs. 13, 9.

Line: North Carolina by 2 1/2 .

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