You Get What You Asked For
April 3, 2005 | By Benjamin Miraski
After an amazing Elite Eight series of 4 games which saw 3 games in Overtime, one a double affair, it is no wonder that the two Final Four games failed to be as exciting. Two fairly even first halves, including a Michigan State lead, gave way to what many had been anticipating all season. Illinois and North Carolina asserted their dominance with defense and talent and pulled away from their respective foes setting up a final which could be talked about for years.
The hype surrounding this game will be intense. The NCAA tournament hasn't seen the top two teams in the polls facing one another since the mid-70s. In the meantime, there have been epic battles in the final game of the season, but somehow, none seem to have the draw of this one. Illinois and North Carolina tore out ahead of the rest of the league and established a standard that others failed to meet. Kansas tried, Boston College tried, Oklahoma State tried. None succeeded.
Given that the Illini almost fell at the hands of Arizona, and North Carolina got its scare during the Sweet Sixteen against Villanova, it was entirely possible to imagine a scenario where neither of these teams was in the Finals. Both have struggled at times to display the talent and potential which is inherent in both squads. Illinois consistently pulled games out after it appeared they had been lost, winning its share of close ones throughout the season to reach this point with only one loss. North Carolina, for its part, has disappeared in some of its matches. The talent goes away, frustration sets in, they look ordinary, their opponents take advantage.
Through it all though, no one is denying that this is the match-up we want. Deron Williams, Raymond Felton, Dee Brown, Rashad McCants, Luther Head, Jackie Manuel, Roger Powell, Jawad Williams, James Augustine, Sean May. Add in first bench players Marvin Williams and Jack Ingram. If these two teams went to the NBA right now, they could win the Atlantic Division.
The fabulous guard play for Illinois will need to be on. Throughout the season, a strong inside man would give Illinois fits. Sean May is not going to roll over for the Illini. At the same time, North Carolina is going to have to get him help on the outside and not throw the ball away. Poor passing was a problem for North Carolina in the first half of the game against Michigan State. Nine turnovers in the first 20 minutes, including four by point guard Felton could have done them in. Michigan State was able to convert the turnovers into a lead at half time, but no further as North Carolina got it together in the second period. Illinois will not relent in its defensive pressure. Despite forcing only 5 turnovers on Saturday, you can guarantee that it will be the focus of the Illini to take away the ball from UNC before it gets in deep to May. Augustine gives up 30 pounds to the big man and that is a hard pounding to take for 40 minutes. Ingram and Nick Smith will need to do their part to spell Augustine with minutes to keep him fresh for the final stretch.
This season deserves a fantastic finish. We have seen fabulous games all season, close match-ups which ended in a great final plays and shots. No one is going to forget Salim Stoudamire in the final minutes against Oklahoma State, or Deron Williams when he got on against Arizona. The fabulous play of LSU forward Brandon Bass to tie the SEC semi-final. The last second shots by Charlotte's Brendan Plavich and Ohio State's Matt Sylvester. One can only hope that we are going to have something in the final reminiscent of these performances and that will be talked about alongside Christian Laettner's turn around jumper against Kentucky, Michael Jordan's final shot against Georgetown in 1982, or Lorenzo Charles's finishing dunk to give North Carolina State its improbable title in 1983.
Bring it on, Illinois and North Carolina. The country is watching and waiting.
Posted April 3, 2005 1:31 PM