Final Four Semifinals

If you're not pumped up for the Illini vs. the Tar Heels, well, maybe you'll never get the hang of this college basketball thing, will you?

ST. LOUIS – You might beg to differ if you consider yourself among the devotees of the other 63 teams whose names so systemically filled the 65 slots on the bracket sheet that was unveiled on March 13.

But chances are that the collective wish of the college basketball-watching world has proven the 2005 NCAA Tournament's command:

The teams from the universities of Illinois and North Carolina are going to hook up Monday night in the Edward Jones Dome, with a national title at stake.

And, after the way in which the Illini (en route to a 72-57 decision over Louisville) and the Tar Heels (during an 87-71 victory against Michigan State) thoroughly dominated in the second halves Saturday night in front of 47,754 Saturday night, does anyone believe that what is in store for us may be nothing short of sensational?

If I get started right now on all the reasons why this might be the most eagerly anticipated final in years and years – and it's the first time the No.'s 1-2 teams, with Illinois being the former, have met in a title game since UCLA and Kentucky did so in 1975 --- I might be writing until Tuesday morning.

We'll save the details for the next column you'll be reading that's produced on this Compaq laptop . . . stayed tuned.

For now, let's dive into what happened in front of all those orange- (Illinois), red- (Louisville), blue- (North Carolina), green- (Michigan State) and miscellaneous- (everyone just wanting to experience a Final Four, in the flesh) clad folks who showed up Saturday night:

Why had Illinois won 36 of 37 games before its semifinal with Louisville?

The Illini put all of the reasons on very public display against the Cardinals.

The long-range marksmanship was its usual dependable presence, even on an evening when two of the three Illinois prime perimeter threats (Deron Williams and Dee Brown) combined to clank 11 of 14 attempts.

Luther Head (six of 11) and Roger Powell (two 3's after intermission) more than compensated nicely, thank you very much.

The crisp passing and selflessness that 99 percent of the head coaches can only fantasy about?

Illinois Coach Bruce Weber has viewed it, first hand, since his team started practice in October.

And both were in full bloom Saturday night, with the conclusive evidence coming via 21 assists on 27 field goals.

Did Illinois take care of the basketball? Sure enough, with a single turnover in the first half and only six giveaways after intermission.

We can wax poetic all we want about the fluidity and efficiency of the Illinois offense.

But we'd better pause, take a deep breath, and get ready to ladle on a heaping helping of praise on the defense the Illini play.

Saturday night the same Louisville team that dropped 93 each on Washington and West Virginia in Albuquerque was held to 57 points.

There are teams on the USC's football schedule next fall that are going to have a hard time holding the Trojans to that few points.

The Cardinals' offensive staple of "penetrate off the dribble, draw a help defender and kick it to an open shooter" met with much resistance from Weber's band of willing and focused man-to-man defenders.

Louisville's three prime offensive threats, Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean and Larry O'Bannon, were dealt lock-down mode defensive efforts from Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, who harassed the three into missing 25 of 35 field-goal attempts.

The team Illinois will be facing Monday night has been considered anything but an overpowering defensive club.

The Tar Heels' defensive performance Saturday, though, especially after the team fell behind, 38-33, at intermission, looked a lot more "national championship-like" than most expected from UNC Saturday night.

The Spartans missed 24 of 34 shots from the field in the second half, courtesy a lot of hard, on-the-ball pressure and the shot-blocking ability the UNC front-court players.

And the Tar Heels' offensive attack over the final 20 minutes couldn't have been much more high octane.

Junior center Sean May, who looked like someone apt to make a lot of John R. Wooden Award voters want to re-cast their ballots, scored 18 points after intermission despite usually having a post defender in back of him and one or two other Spartans slapping at the ball once he caught it.

May's classmates, playmaker Raymond Felton (16 points and five assists) and wing Rashad McCants (17 points), had little difficulty in jetting by defenders in the open court in transition, or getting them on their hips and they toying with them in half-court situations

And the Williamses (Jawad and Marvin) and David Noel were much too active and much too bouncy along the baseline and in the key, offensively and defensively, for anyone who tried to match up with them Saturday night.

So, as most of us think college basketball is a rather grand pastime have anticipated since department stores were still elbow-to-elbow with holiday shoppers, we've got a final night match-up of Illinois and North Carolina, with 99 victories and only five defeats between them.

I'm guessing that channel surfing is next to nil Monday night.



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 frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at FrankHoops.com

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