ST. LOUIS Based on the sea of orange that spread across the
bleachers during the Final Four practices in the Edward Jones Dome Friday afternoon, there
seems little doubt as to which of the teams will have the most overwhelming support in the
building Saturday night.
And heres a hint: Its not going to be North Carolina, Michigan State or Louisville.
All of those folks clad in orange tonight will be rooting for an
Illinois team that has won 36 of 37 games, losing only because of the three-pointer that
Matt Sylvester hit late for a 65-64 Ohio State Big Ten Conference in Columbus on March 6.
But although the Tar Heels, Spartans and Cardinals each have at least four losses, Illinois is anything but a rock-solid consensus to cut down nets late Monday night.
Thats because Coach Bruce Webers team is hooking up in Game One tonight with a Louisville club that has lost just once (to Memphis) since Jan. 5.
And, in Game Two, the team widely universally conceded to have the most future NBA first-round picks, North Carolina, is dueling a Michigan State team that knocked off both Duke and Kentucky to get here.
So who do we expect to be practicing Sunday for the Monday night championship game?
Heres a hint: The teams met during the regular season, in East Lansing, Mich., on Feb. 1.
As jittery as it makes us pick against Rick Pitino- and Roy Williams-coached clubs Saturday night, we could be looking at an all-Big Ten final.
SCANNING THE FINAL FOUR
THE SURPRISE: Michigan State. The Spartans were the No. 5 seed in the Austin region, knocking off No. 1 and No. 2 (Duke and Kentucky) to get here.
HALL OF FAME PRESENCE: Its reasonable to assume that Roy Williams (North Carolina), Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Rick Pitino (Louisville), who have taken 14 teams to the Final Fours, will get the Springfield, Mass., treatment some day. If Bruce Weber has some more clubs like the Illinois team he brought to St. Louis, he could be in that stratosphere some day, too.
SENIOR MOMENTS: Ellis Myles and Larry OBannon (Louisville); Luther Head and Roger Powell (Illinois); Alan Anderson, Kelvin Torbert and Chris Hill (Michigan State); Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott (North Carolina).
BEST PLAYMAKER/FLOOR LEADER: Deron Williams (Illinois).
BEST REBOUNDER: Sean May (North Carolina).
BEST JUMP SHOOTER: Taquan Dean (Louisville).
BEST DEFENDER: Deron Williams (Illinois).
THE BEST PLAYER/RIGHT NOW: (tie) Sean May (North Carolina) and Deron Williams (Illinois).
THE TOP FRESHMAN: Marvin Williams (North Carolina).
THE BEST PLAYER/FIVE YEARS HENCE: Marvin Williams (North Carolina).
5:07 p.m. CT
No. 1 Illinois (36-1) vs. No. 4 Louisville (33-4)
RECORD VS. TOURNAMENT TEAMS: Illinois 17-0; Louisville 12-2.
ITS COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: Its the team thats been rated No. 1 since the Dec. 7 against a Louisville club that has won 13 in a row and 22 of its past 23 games. Theyre both exceptionally strong on the perimeter but have underrated post play. And both mounted compelling rallies (Louisville from 20 points late in the first half against West Virginia and Illinois from 15 down with four minutes to go against Arizona) in regional finals.
WHAT IS LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Although both have exceptional perimeter players, Louisvilles with the exception of Francisco Garcia are more catch and shoot types while the Illinois trio of Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown are equally adept at taking opponents off the dribble or knocking in jumpers. Louisville doesnt figure to be able to zone the Illini effectively but its man-to-man doesnt figure to slow down the Illinois half-court offense as effectively as it did West Virginias, which didnt have many good drivers.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING MONDAY NIGHT? Illinois.
7:47 p.m. CT
No. 1 North Carolina (31-4) vs. No. 5 Michigan State (26-6)
RECORD VS. TOURNAMENT TEAMS: North Carolina 12-3; Michigan State 11-5.
ITS COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: If your idea of entertainment is watching a team with incredibly gifted offensive players, then the Tar Heels are your guys. Roy Williams has about eight different players (starters Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams, Sean May and Jackie Manuel, and reserves Marvin Williams and Melvin Scott) capable of scoring 20 points tonight. The Spartans are playing better right now than any MSU team has since Tom Izzos team won a national title in 2000.
WHAT IS LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: This is Izzos most explosive offensive team since the club that cut down the nets five years ago, and it wants to get out in transition as much as possible. But caution must be taken by the Spartans not to let this turn into a full-fledge, 94-foot sprint. This Tar Heels team isnt going to lose any of those, with Felton leading the most explosive fast break in the country this season. Michigan State can win this game because it plays better defense in half-court settings. But if the Spartans dont slow the Tar Heels down, that solid half-court D becomes moot. And the Tar Heels are going to have to play much better defense over 40 minutes than they did in outscoring Wisconsin (88-82) Sunday in Syracuse to win tonight.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING MONDAY NIGHT? Michigan State.
Recently elected to the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and also covers college basketball for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Burlison's pieces at FrankHoops.com