We are finally here. The National Championship Game. The two best teams in the country, Illinois and North Carolina, are going to face off tonight for the right to be called the “NCAA Champion.” This is the game that everyone has been discussing since Christmas. People have been debating about a dream match-up between the Fighting Illini and the Tar Heels, and now it is actually going to be played out on the court. It should be the perfect climax to the greatest sport in the universe, and will conclude the best three weeks in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament.
How They Got Here:
Illinois struggled for much of their first-round game against Fairleigh Dickinson, but were just too talented for a #16 seed in the end. Their second-round match-up vs. Nevada was not as close as the score indicated. The vaunted star of the Wolf Pack, Nick Fazekas, had no impact on the game at all. During the round of 16, the Cinderella of the tournament, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, had their run ended by the Illini. The pressing style of the Panthers played right into Illinois’ game, who won by a decent margin. The next game against Arizona was one of the best games of the tournament, and had one of the top comebacks you will ever see. In what was an even game throughout, Arizona began pulling away, led by their dominance in the paint. The Wildcats were up 15 with 4:08 remaining. It all fell apart from there. They turned it over and took bad shots on nearly every possession, and Illinois went on a 20-5 run to end regulation and send it into overtime. Arizona had a chance to win at the end of overtime, but ran a horrendous final play and lost by one. The Final Four turned out to be a much easier game for the Illini than most had anticipated. Louisville stayed close for a half, but could not hit their shots in the second half and lost by a 15-point margin that was not indicative of the game.
North Carolina demonstrated why many people considered them the most dangerous team in the country with their domination of Oakland in the first round and Iowa State in the round of 32. Neither team could contend with the Tar Heels’ multitude of weapons. In the Sweet 16, Villanova gave UNC a very tough game. Up by 12 in the first half, the Wildcats were in the game until the final minute, where a questionable travel call on Allan Ray and some timely free-throw shooting allowed the Tar Heels to escape by one. Prior to the Elite Eight match-up against Wisconsin, most thought that the Badgers would slow the game down and hope that UNC would struggle. However, Wisconsin hung right with North Carolina throughout the game and put up with their running style. Clutch three-point shooting and a dominant game from Sean May were keys in the Tar Heels eventual victory. The national semi-final contest against Michigan State was similar to the other semi-final game—close for a half turning into a blowout in the second period. UNC was down by 5 at halftime but gave the Spartans a clinic in the next half to make the game a 16-point rout.
5 Key Questions:
1. Can James Augustine and co. slow down Sean May? If Augustine, Jack Ingram, Nick Smith and the gang can hold May below 30 points and 20 rebounds, the Illini would be in better shape. Once May begins to dominate, it will open the floor for the rest of the Tar Heels. It is imperative that the big men from Illinois make life difficult for May. Channing Frye showed that Illinois is vulnerable on the interior.
2. Will North Carolina play good enough defense? Illinois and their motion offense can make lazy teams look silly on defense. That could be a problem for the Tar Heels; they tend to take possessions off on the defensive end of the floor and can be lazy at times. If they think that defense is a time for rest, the Illini are going to shred the North Carolina defense. Their passing is phenomenal and they always seem to have wide-open three pointers.
3. Will Rashad McCants become the next victim of Deron Williams? Williams has shut down two of the best offensive players at the collegiate level in the past two games, Salim Stoudamaire and Francisco Garcia. That is the reason that Illinois is still playing at this point. If he can do the same thing to McCants, it will take away a key element of the Tar Heel offense and will allow the Illini to focus on defending May on the interior.
4. Whose bench will come up bigger?/What team is going to have a bigger unsung player? This may not seem as important as the other ones, but it is. In the championship game, players are going to have to step up in order for their team to win. Some of those unsung players are going to come off the bench. In the Final Four game, UNC sixth man extraordinaire Marvin Williams did next to nothing. He is going to need to pick up his game in the title game. Jack Ingram could be the man that steps up for the Illini off the pine.
5. Who is faster with the ball—Dee Brown or Raymond Felton? Okay, this one is not as crucial as the aforementioned four, but it is interesting, nonetheless. Watching both of them the entire season, I have continuously wondered who is faster with the ball in his hands. Tonight will be the game to settle it, once and for all. On the serious side, if Brown can stay with Felton, the UNC fast-break will be slowed and the Tar Heels are going to be forced to play half-court offense, something they would rather not do.
In the backcourt, Illinois will have a slight advantage, as a result of the simple fact that their three guards are outstanding when combined with each other. Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head all can take it to the basket, play defense, and shoot the three. Williams has seen his stock rise more than any other play in the tournament thanks to his wonderful defense in the past two rounds as well as his unflappable leadership and control of the game. When the Illini need a basket, they usually go to Williams. He can create for himself and for others. Brown is ridiculously quick with or without the ball. He has deep range and can penetrate the lane against bigger players. He is one of the best players in the country in transition. On defense, he can alter the course of a game with his quick hands and anticipation ability. Head is the best offensive player on the team. He had six threes against Louisville, several with a hand in his face. He is also able to slash to the basket with ease. Moreover, when healthy, Head is a very tough defender. Rich McBride comes off the bench to provide three-point shooting. On the other side of ball, North Carolina counters with an outstanding backcourt of their own. Raymond Felton is the most important player in college basketball to his team. Without him, the Tar Heels fall apart. He gets their fast-break offense going and has turned into the most consistent three-point shooter on the team after struggling with his shot during his entire career. Felton also starts the defensive pressure in the half-court for UNC. Rashad McCants is an unbelievable offensive talent. He has the ability to shoot the three or take it to the basket around most defenders. In addition, he can post up smaller defenders to get easy baskets. Jackie Manuel is one of the best defenders in the country, and was named to the ACC All-Defensive team. He usually locks up the opponents best perimeter scorer. Melvin Scott has stepped up as the first backcourt reserve during the Tournament when Felton has gotten into foul trouble. He can handle the ball and is a senior veteran that can hit the three if needed. David Noel is a solid swingman off the bench that can defend and rebound. He is also a high-flyer on the fast-break.
Up front, North Carolina holds a substantial advantage. Sean May is the best post player in the country, hands down. He can dominate any defense thrown at him, and has stepped up when needed most, including big games against Duke and Wisconsin. May has developed into an essentially unstoppable big man. His soft hands make him nearly impossible to guard. Moreover, he is a beast on the glass. Jawad Williams is very versatile for a 6-9 forward. He can block shots well, and steps out and shoots the three with the ability of smaller players. He had a big game in the Final Four, and might be getting his stroke back after a bit of a slump. Marvin Williams is a jaw-dropping talent that might be the best pro prospect at the collegiate level. Oh, two more things—he is a freshman and does not even start for the Tar Heels. He steps up when needed, though. He can do everything on a basketball court—shoot the ball, post up, rebound, defend, etc. Illinois has been exposed down low at times, but can still hold their own against most teams. Roger Powell is a versatile forward who was huge in the second half against Louisville. He can rebound well, and shoots the three consistently. His quickness in the post makes him difficult to guard. James Augustine has developed into a solid player in the paint for Illinois. The lefty has some nice post moves and can score when he gets the ball close to the basket. He is the best rebounder that Illinois has, and he can step out and shoot the 12-15 footer with consistency. Jack Ingram has become the #1 option off the bench for coach Bruce Weber. He is a very good three-point shooter for his size and has a knack for hitting clutch shots. Nick Smith has seen his minutes go down with the emergence of Ingram. However, he can still shoot the ball astonishingly well for a 7-footer but he does not like to bang down low.
Raymond Felton vs. Dee Brown- Two of the fastest players in the country go head to head. Advantage: Even
Rashad McCants vs. Deron Williams- Williams could shut down McCants, but McCants will also have to play some defense. Advantage: Illinois
Jackie Manuel vs. Luther Head- The best defender that the Tar Heels have will have his hands full with Head. Advantage: Illinois
Jawad Williams vs. Roger Powell- If both players play like they did in the Final Four, this could turn out to be a very good match-up. Advantage: Even
Sean May vs. James Augustine- Augustine is going have to slow May down somehow, something no one has been able to do yet. Advantage: North Carolina
UNC Bench vs. Illinois Bench- Other than Ingram, Illinois does not have much consistency off the pine. UNC, on the other hand, has Marvin Williams and a couple of other solid players. Advantage: North Carolina
Roy Williams vs. Bruce Weber- Williams has more experience in the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four than Weber, but he has not won the big one yet. Advantage: North Carolina
This is going to be a classic. Both teams are fairly even, with Illinois have the better backcourt, but North Carolina countering with the superior frontcourt. This game is going to come down to the defense of North Carolina and how much Sean May will dominate for UNC. If North Carolina does not take plays off, they can stop Illinois and their outstanding passing offense. On the other hand, if Illinois can get back on defense and slow down the fast-break of UNC, the Tar Heels are going to be forced to play a half-court game, something they are not entirely comfortable in. Inside, Sean May is going to get his--that’s a guarantee. But James Augustine and the rest of the Illini big men are going to have quiet him just a little so that the perimeter of the Tar Heels does not open up. I feel that Deron Williams is going to put the clamps on Rashad McCants, which will force other Tar Heels to step up. In addition, I don’t feel that North Carolina plays good enough defense to stop Illinois on the offensive end. In what should be a high-scoring game, I think that Illinois has too much of both offense and defense for North Carolina. The Illini will be the 2005 NCAA Champions after winning the National Championship.
Prediction: Illinois 83, North Carolina 81
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