ST. LOUIS - Illinois point guard Deron Williams might not get his due until the NBA draft in June, when he could be taken over Raymond Felton for the first time.
In the summer of 2001, Felton and Williams were entering their senior years of high school - Williams in Texas and Felton in South Carolina. Both wanted to attend North Carolina, but then-Tar Heels coach Matt Doherty could take only one.
"I wanted to go [to Chapel Hill], but it didn't happen," Williams said. "They recruited me, but I was the second option to Felton."
Rugged enough to guard centers on his high school team, Williams has helped Illinois become the fourth Division I team to reach 37 victories in a season. That plateau is ominous, however, as Duke in 1986 and 1989, and UNLV in 1987 all were denied NCAA titles.
Illinois is also trying to become the first champion with only one loss since North Carolina State in 1974.
Big turnover coming?
Tonight could be the last time to see the Tar Heels and the Fighting Illini as we currently know them.
Of the top eight players in Illinois' rotation, starters Luther Head and Roger Powell and key front-line reserves Nick Smith and Jack Ingram will graduate. And the NBA stock of the Illini's top two players, Dee Brown and Williams, both of whom are juniors, has improved significantly.
The Tar Heels will lose starters Jackie Manuel and Jawad Williams and seventh man Melvin Scott (Southern-Baltimore) to graduation. There has been speculation that juniors Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May and freshman Marvin Williams, who would be a near certain lottery pick, all will apply early for the draft.
"I feel like I'm a four-year guy, but if the opportunity [for the NBA] is there, it's something that I probably would look into," May said. "But right now, I'm in college and I love playing college basketball. Right now, I'm coming back."
Restoring Heels pride
North Carolina's Scott was in a Durham, N.C., clothing store last week when he spied an acquaintance, lifted his shirt and showed off a recent purchase, a belt with a small screen that read "Final Four."
Duke's J.J. Redick winced.
"When I saw J.J., I had to show him that," Scott said. "He said, `Oh, don't you do that now.' The guys working in the store asked if they needed to move some furniture. They joked that we were going to get into it. For two straight years, they [Blue Devils] beat the [stuffing] out of us."
Senior Day for Scott, Manuel and Jawad Williams featured a stirring comeback over the Blue Devils, a conclusion in contrast to games in the the 8-20 season they had as freshman in 2001-02.
"I told them, `Don't walk near me, we're an easy target,' " Scott said of his freshman year. "Everyone says we're gods on campus, but we didn't want to be seen in public. People try to support you, but you know they're saying, `Those guys stink.' "
When their sophomore seasons also ended without an NCAA tournament, despite the infusion of Felton, May and McCants, the Tar Heels heard from Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and George Lynch about the damage they were doing to a storied program.
May: "They told us, `We're sick of watching you play like this. You're too talented and too good to be representing the university the way you are.' We didn't realize that we were disappointing so many people."
To illustrate how everyone in show business is connected, Hollywood plays six degrees of Kevin Bacon. At the Final Four, you can play one degree of Mike Bibby or Bill Self.
When Illinois' Head made six three-pointers against Louisville, it was the most in the semifinals since Bibby hit six against North Carolina in 1997. Two nights later, Bibby led Arizona past Kentucky, giving the tournament its first father-son NCAA champions.
His father, Henry Bibby, won three titles with UCLA. Scott May was an All-America forward for Indiana in 1976, when the Hoosiers were Division I's last perfect team. His son, Sean, is after a ring of his own.
Self is the middle man in tonight's coaching matchup. When Roy Williams left Kansas for North Carolina after the 2003 final, the Jayhawks hired Self away from Illinois, creating an opening for Bruce Weber.
Williams took offense at Self's criticism of him keeping in touch with his former Kansas players.
"Doug Wojcik was quoted as saying he speaks to the North Carolina players. That doesn't bother me," Williams said of the Michigan State assistant who was a Tar Heels staffer when the North Carolina upper classes were recruited.
"I know I would never, ever do anything to hurt Kansas. It does bother me for somebody to say I interfered."
Illinois' win over Louisville on Saturday had an average overnight household rating/share of 10.3/19, up 23 percent from 8.4/17 in 2004. It marked the best rating in the game window since a 10.5/22 in 1998.
Game 2 between North Carolina and Michigan State scored 11.4/19, up 11 percent from 10.3/18 last year.