ST. LOUIS Lets count the NCAA tournament matchups
many were hankering to see in the past three weeks:
Kansas vs. North Carolina: It would have been Roy Williams and his alma mater vs. the players and program he left to return to Chapel Hill. It would have taken place in the Syracuse Regional final but was derailed when the Jayhawks were stunned by Bucknell in a first-round game.
- Kentucky vs. Louisville: The bitter rivals havent met in
the tournament since the Cardinals beate the Wildcats in overtime (80-68) during a Mideast
Regional semifinal in 1983. This was to have been a national title hookup. Louisville got
to St. Louis but the Wildcats lost a double-overtime decision to Michigan State in the Austin final.
- Duke vs. North Carolina: We
could have seen the first-ever NCAA Tournament tilt between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels
had Duke not lost to Michigan State in the Austin
Regional semifinals (the Spartans beat Kentucky two days later).
- Illinois vs. Kansas: Those
in Champaign who still harbor bitterness that Bill Self
wanted to replace Roy Williams in Lawrence instead of trying to lead the Illini to their
first national championship were craving one in the championship game. But Bucknell killed
any of those possibilities in Oklahoma City on March 18, 64-63.
We may have been blanked on each of those four potential dream match-ups.
But weve got us a whopper final Monday night dream on!
The first two teams on the NCAA Tournament selection and seeding committees 65-squad ``S curve, survived and advanced not without each enduring some very precarious moments in regional play thru five games apiece.
Illinois (37-1) and North Carolina (32-4) have 69 victories between them, which serve as pretty solid fodder for the argument of those who believe theyve been the two best teams in the country for the bulk of the 2004-05 season.
Which team will snag victory No. 70 and cut nets from rims and engage in all the other national championship frolicking on the Edward Jones Dome floor late Monday night?
The opinions from those who fall in the Illinois has played the most consistently exceptional basketball all season and is the best team in the country school of thought or its North Carolina, though mildly erratic at times, has the most talent and therefore is the best team in college basketball counterpart.
No matter the result, it shapes up as the most attractive final game the sport has had since 1999, when a one-loss and top-ranked Duke club hooked up with a two-loss a No. 3-ranked Connecticut team. The Richard Hamilton-led Huskies came out on top in that one.
Heres a closer look at Monday evenings particulars:
No. 1 (Chicago Regional) Illinois (37-1) vs. No. 1 (Syracuse Regional) North Carolina (32-4), 8:07 p.m. CT tip-off
RECORDS VS. TOURNAMENT TEAMS: Illinois 18-0; North Carolina 13-3.
THE CLOSEST OF CALLS: The Illini came from 15 points down with four minutes to go to beat Arizona (90-89) in overtime of the Chicago Regional final; North Carolina edged Villanova, 67-66, in a Syracuse Regional semifinal.
COMMON FOES: Iowa (UNC won, 106-92; Illinois swept, 73-68, and 75-64); Indiana (UNC won, 70-63; Illinois won, 60-47); Wake Forest (UNC lost, 95-82; Illinois prevailed, 91-73); Oakland (UNC rolled, 96-68; Illinois coasted, 85-54); Wisconsin (UNC won, 88-82; Illinois beat the Badgers three times, 75-65, 70-59, and 54-43); Michigan State (UNC won, 87-71, and Illinois prevailed, 81-68).
ITS COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: Its the first time the 1-2 ranked (by the Associated Press) teams have met in a title game since UCLA beat Kentucky in 1975 in John Woodens swan song as the Bruins coach. Its also the title hook-up that most everyone who follows the sport has anticipated since December. And Roy Williams is trying to lead a team to a national championship after coming up short in four other Final Four appearances.
THE COOLEST OF MATCHUPS: At point guard, Deron Williams (Illinois) vs. Raymond Felton (North Carolina), and at wing, Luther Head (Illinois) vs. Rashad McCants (North Carolina). Talk about your "games within games" ...
WHAT IS LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Its hard to imagine this being anything but a compelling and entertaining championship game. Illinois has been ranked No. 1 since early December and North Carolina has been nearly universally acclaimed the most talented team in the country the entire season. Both teams are marvelous in transition, with dazzling backcourts headed by future NBA lottery selections at point guard in Deron Wiliams and Raymond Felton. The Tar Heels, with Sean May, Jawad Williams and Marvin Williams roaming the lane and along the baseline, have an obvious physical advantage. Ultimately, the winner will be the team that does the best job of playing defense in transition, and the one that executes its half-court offense with the most efficiency.
WHO WINS?The team that plays the best half-court defense and maximizes every half-court offensive possession should prevail. And in each game its played this season, thats been Illinois. Look for that streak to continue.
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 email@example.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at FrankHoops.com