Sunday, April 03, 2005

#1 vs. #2--We settle it on the court

Oskee Mom Mom asked me if I wanted her to pinch me this morning just so I would know last night was not a dream. I said no but she did it anyway. Wow, what an amazing experience being able to watch the Fighting Illini win a Final Four game in person and advance to the National Championship game.

As a Big Ten fan, I was disappointed to see Michigan State lose, but Illinois-North Carolina is the game virtually everyone wants to see. The two teams ranked Number One and Number Two in the polls for most of the season and the two teams that were clearly the best in the country. Well, tomorrow night the two teams will settle it on the court. We will find out who is truly number one and the National Champion. Deron Williams agrees, saying, "It is the matchup everyone wanted. It's finally here, and we get to play it on the court instead of people taking about it."

I heard a North Carolina fan accuse Illinois fans of wanting Michigan State to win so that Illinois would have a so-called "easier title game." I suppose it is possible that some Illinois fans may have felt that way but I think it was more a case of Big Ten solidarity, which is something most ACC fans would no nothing about. The title game is going to be tough no matter who we were going to end up playing.

Perhaps Illini fans are feeling some trepidation or nervousness about playing a team as talented as North Carolina. Do you think that perhaps North Carolina fans might be feeling some of the same things about facing a team as talented as Illinois? If they aren't, then they are making a mistake. All I can say to all of you Illini fans out there is believe.

This is the way it should be. The two best teams facing each other for the title. Despite the fact that I was cheering for Michigan State, the competitive side of me knew that if we were to beat North Carolina for the title it would be just that much more satisfying and finally settle the debate over which team is best this year.

Tomorrow night's game will not be easy. But the one thing Michigan State did do last night was to show our guys how to attack North Carolina. They are not a good defensive team. We have to look inside to our big guys as well as drive to the basket. If the Illini to that, UNC will foul them. It is important for us to get to the free throw line and to get their guys into foul trouble. Michigan State did that in the first half and then got away from it in the second half when they settled for jump shots. Illinois can shoot much better than the Spartans and we should still look for the three when it is there but we have to drive the ball and look inside in order to force them to defend us.

Defensively, UNC is a load for our guys. The Heels have talent at every position. However, Deron has done an outstanding job of locking up whichever man he is guarding and should be able to do the same to Felton or McCants tomorrow. That could put Luther who has also been outstanding defensively on the other talented UNC guard. Williams, Brown, and Head all have great hands and this could be very important as North Carolina sometimes gets a little careless with the ball. This could lead to some steals and easly baskets.

On the frontcourt side of things, Augustine and Ingram also played outstanding defense against Louisville's big men. They will need to do even better against Sean May. Our guards are also going to have to help out by making it difficult for their guards to get May the ball. Ultimately, he is going to get his fair share of points but if we can hold down their other guys, we can live with that. Marvin Williams can also create matchup problems but Illinois' experience should help them against the talented freshman.

Illinois hasn't faced a team with quite as much talent as North Carolina but UNC hasn't faced a team as fast, team-oriented, and defensive-minded as Illinois. It is going to be a battle between two heavyweights. CBS Sportsline gives Illinois the backcourt edge, North Carolina the frontcourt edge, and rates the overall edge as even. I think it is a cliche, but whoever wants it more is going to win. I believe that team is Illinois. I think they are sick and tired of hearing about how North Carolina is better than them and I think they want to prove once and for all that they are the best team in the country. I watched both teams play in person last night. Illinois just has that look like this is their year and no one is going to prevent them from accomplishing their goal of winning a national championship. I'll be in St. Louis again tomorrow night to watch the Illini finish the job and cut down the nets. In the 100th year of Illinois basketball, that is the only way such a special season should end.

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