NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW
By Steve Bernard
And then there were two. Through all the upsets, last-second shots and overtimes, the teams ranked first and second overall made it to the championship game. Illinois and North Carolina have each won five games in the past two weeks, but one will end its season just like the other 63 teams in the tournament -- with a loss.
Illinois Beat Louisville, 72-57
It was Illinois' defense, not offense, that was on display as the Illini beat the Cardinals. The game was close for the first 30 minutes. Then, Illinois' defense went on a run. Illinois held Louisville, one of the most potent offenses and best shooting teams in the nation, to only eight points the final 10 minutes of the game. That enabled Illinois' offense to slow the pace of the game, spread the ball and get high-percentage shots. Championship-caliber teams find different ways to win every night. Last week it was a huge comeback, Saturday it was a stifling defense. This team is so good that Deron Williams, an All-American, needed to score only five points in the game. He hit the first basket of the game, and the last.
North Carolina beat Michigan State, 87-71
Like Illinois, North Carolina pulled away in the second half of a tight game. With 15 minutes to go, the game was tied, 49-49. From there, the better team took over. The athletic Spartans just weren't able to keep up with the offensive attack of the Tar Heels. Jawad Williams, Rashad McCants, Sean May and Raymond Felton combined for 75 of the Tar Heels 87 points in the win. Marvin Williams, for the second consecutive game, was almost non-existent on offense, scoring only two points on 1-of-6 shooting.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCHUP
Illinois boasts the best three-guard combination in the country. Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams garnered All-American honors. The three combine to average more than 41 points and about 15 assists per game. All of them will probably be on the court for more than 35 minutes in the championship. North Carolina counters with Raymond Felton, Jackie Manuel and Rashad McCants. The three combine for about 36 points and about 10 assists per game. Illinois has already shut down one dominating backcourt in the Final Four. This will make it two. The advantage here goes to Illinois.
James Augustine and Roger Powell Jr. are going to have their hands full trying to guard Sean May. May will be the best player in the paint Monday night. May posted double-doubles in 12 of his last 14 games. May is joined in the frontcourt by Jawad Williams. Williams was huge against Michigan State, scoring 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He also pulled down eight rebounds in the victory. As strong as Williams was in the semifinals, so was Powell Jr. He scored 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field, as well. Those two should cancel each other out, leaving May against Augustine. As good as Augustine has been in the tournament, he is not as good as May. The advantage here goes to North Carolina
Neither team has a deep bench. Most of the starters will play more than 30 minutes. For Illinois, Jack Ingram will be the main weapon off the bench. He will be used, with Augustine, to try and slow down May. For North Carolina, Marvin Williams is the first guy off the bench. He hasn't shot well the last two games, but he hasn't had to. He can be a spark off the bench if one of North Carolina's starters is struggling. But, for him to be on the court, either May or Jawad Williams needs to be sitting because North Carolina won't be able to guard Illinois' backcourt if those three are on the court at the same time. The advantage here favors North Carolina because Marvin Williams can bring more offense to the court than anyone off Illinois' bench.
Bruce Weber is in only his second season as the coach of Illinois. The biggest reason he has his job is because Roy Williams is now the coach of North Carolina. When Williams left Kansas, Illinois' former coach, Bill Self, went to Kansas and Weber took over for Self. Weber has been on an emotional roller coaster the past few weeks with his mother's death and the team's tournament run. Williams has been to multiple Final Fours, but never won it all. He has coached some unbelievable teams, but still manages to find a way to lose. The advantage goes to Williams because of his experience coaching in Final Fours.
This is Illinois' season, and nothing is going to stop them from taking the title. Not May, McCants, Felton and all the Williams' North Carolina can throw at them. Illinois' defense will slow down the North Carolina offense just enough. North Carolina, on the other hand, isn't strong enough defensively to match the Illinois offense. Monday night, Illinois will cap off its season with another win, its 38th of the season.
Article first appeared 4/3/05