St. Louis, Mo. - Edward Jones Dome
Monday, 9:21 p.m., CBS (Jim Nantz, Billy Packer)
Season Recap: Illinois took over the No. 1 ranking in early December and never let it go, losing only one game -- a last-second defeat at Ohio State in the final week of the regular season. Early critics were silenced by a resume that comprised 13 wins over Tournament-bound teams -- including Gonzaga, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Michigan State and Wisconsin (three times). "Illinois is the best team, they have been all season, ranked No. 1 and they deserve it," Roy Williams said. "They have done the best job of anybody in the country this season." The Illini cruised through the Big Ten Tournament and while not overpowering, has won four of its five Tournament games by double-digits. The close-call came in the Elite 8, where they overcame a 15-point deficit to Arizona in the final four minutes and won in overtime. How did Arizona build up such a lead? A dominating performance by center Channing Frye (24 pts, 12 reb, 6 blk), which should give Tar Heel fans reason to be optimistic about Sean May's chances Monday night.
Three-Headed PG: Few will argue that Illinois has the best backcourt in the country. Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head are the trio at the heart of the teams' success this season. Williams is a big (6-3, 210) true point guard who, despite his offensive weapons, looks pass-first. "A point guard is supposed to sacrifice his points," Dee Brown said. "(Williams) has been like that ever since he stepped on campus." But Williams also plays lockdown defense on the opposing team's best guard or wing (Francisco Garcia, Louisville, 2-10 FG; Salim Stoudemire, Arizona, 2-13 FG; Ed McCants, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 4-17 FG). Dee Brown gets the majorty of the team's publicity because of his flash -- he is lightening-fast, leading the team in three-point shooting and steals, while also handing out 4.5 assists. Luther Head is the leading scorer (15.8 ppg), doing most of his damage from the outside (setting a school record with made three-pointers) or on the break. These three versatile guards drive Bruce Weber's motion offense, which requires a consistent 40 minutes of defense to hold in check.
Sharpshooters: The motion offense also thrives when a team has good three-point shooters. Well, Illinois is a terrific three-point shooting team, hitting 39.7 percent of its shots from beyond the arc. The only player who will take the court Monday night that isn't a three-point threat is center James Augustine -- every other player has hit big three-point shots. Dee Brown leads the way at 44.1%, while Head shoots 41.6% (and averages more than seven attempts per game), Williams hits 36.7% and even post players Roger Powell and Jack Ingram have shown in this Tournament that they can step out and knock them down.
Frontcourt Depth: When looking for holes in the Illinois rotation, usually the best anyone can come up with is their lack of frontcourt depth. James Augustine is a proven player in the middle (10.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and while starting forward Roger Powell rarely sees the spotlight, he was front and center in Saturday night's win over Louisville with an emphatic 20 points. The Illini bring two post players off the bench -- seniors Jack Ingram (6-10) and Nick Smith (7-2). Both can run the floor and can hit outside jumpers, but they aren't highly regarded defenders or rebounders, making this a key area for the Tar Heels to try and exploit. "I think our three-man rotation of bigs can bother them a little bit," Sean May said. "I think if we get them in foul trouble, make them get into their bench a little bit, make Ingram play more than Augustine or Powell, that's to our advantage."
Homecourt Advantage?: The Illinois campus is less than 200 miles away from the Edward Jones Dome and estimates are that upwards of 75 percent of Monday night's crowd could be Illini fans. And since their first two Tournament locales were within driving distance as well, Illinois has been used to seeing a crowd drowned in bright orange. "It means a lot," Powell said. "Every place we've played so far, we had a great showing of Illini fans, a lot of orange. I think that helps a lot, and it's so exciting for the fans for them to be able to come and be close."
No. 1 vs. No. 2: For the first time in 30 years, the top two teams in the Associated Press poll will face off in the championship game. "This is what a lot of guys have been waiting for," Jawad Williams said. "I know that Illinois has been probably waiting on it, and so have we. It's only the right thing that the two so-called best teams in college basketball get to go at it on the big stage."
Unchartered Waters: In this the 100th season of Illinois basketball, the Illini are making their first-ever appearance in the national championship game Monday night. The Tar Heels' last championship game was in 1993, when they defeated Michigan.
Background Location: Urbana-Champaign, Ill. Enrollment: 36,738 Conference: Big Ten Nickname: Fighting Illini Colors: Orange & Blue Head Coach: Bruce Weber Record at UI: 63-8
Probable Starting Lineup: Deron Williams (6-3, 210, G, Jr.) – 12.4 ppg, 6.8 apg Dee Brown (6-0, 185, G, Jr.) – 13.3 ppg, 4.5 apg Luther Head (6-3, 185, G, Sr.) – 15.8 ppg, 3.9 apg Roger Powell (6-6, 235, F, Sr.) – 12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg James Augustine (6-10, 230, F, Jr.) – 10.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg Reserves: Jack Ingram (6-10, 245, F, Sr.) – 4.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg Nick Smith (7-2, 250, C, Sr.) – 3.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg Rich McBride (6-3, 215, G, So.) – 2.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg
Williams ... Brown
Augustine ... Head
Weber ... Powell