The 'Final' words on the St. Louis 'Four'
When Illinois and Louisville tip off at 6:07 p.m. Saturday, the fireworks from what could be the best NCAA Final Four in years are sure to explode. The nightcap of North Carolina and Michigan State may even be better than the first match-up, if that's possible.
Want more reasons to watch? How about North Carolina's junior class trying to complete a comeback from an 8-20 season just two years ago? Or Louisville's coach Rick Pitino, trying to win his second national title after leading three different programs to the Final Four? Or the 14 potential first-round NBA draft picks that will be playing?
The action will be endless and the drama sensational, and the finishes to every game could end up on ESPN Classic. Let's take a look at just what might happen.
Louisville vs. Illinois is being billed as Saturday's marquee match-up. Most analysts agree this even battle will be won by whichever's backcourt plays better. Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams have all proven themselves to be talented, athletic and great team players for Illinois. Brown could average 20 points a game on most teams, yet he settles for getting Williams and Head better looks at the basket. But Brown must guard 6-foot-4 Larry O'Bannon from Louisville. That will cause him some trouble. O'Bannon, the MVP of the Albuquerque regional, has four inches on Brown and is a solid individual defender; this should put the pressure on Brown to continue being assertive while running the offense.
Another key duel will pit Luther Head against Francisco Garcia. Garcia is 6-foot-7, and some NBA scouts foresee him going as high as the mid-teens in this year's draft if he leaves school early, which he likely will. Head has the senior experience and can shoot almost as well as Garcia.
If the Fighting Illini shut down Garcia, there is no reason they won't win by double digits. The Cardinals go as Garcia does, so the junior swingman shooter with Reggie Miller-esque range needs to keep Head under control with good defense. Both benches are relatively short and won't have an impact unless there is foul trouble. PICK: Illinois by 7.
North Carolina and Michigan State are both athletic, but what separates them are defense and depth. Michigan State has shown its defensive toughness in the tournament, and Carolina has shown its resolve and capability to hang tough in games where it wasn't playing its best. But the Tar Heels' bench is far superior. Their roster goes nine deep consistently, and coach Roy Williams has no problem playing freshman Marvin Williams just minutes into the game if someone isn't performing. Marvin Williams, the best freshman in the nation, is a difference-maker who runs the floor extremely well for a 6-foot-9 big man and can shoot 3-pointers with no problem. But he's most deadly under the boards or on the prowl for opponents' mistakes. He is a sure lottery pick if he declares for the NBA this year.
Kelvin Torbert and Chris Hill have been huge boosts off the Spartans' bench this tournament. If Michigan State slows the tempo to a half-court crawl and finds a way to score 70 points, it has a shot. Otherwise, the Heels will be playing on Monday night. PICK: North Carolina by 11.
That leaves us with Illinois and North Carolina, the game everyone has been waiting to see since the season began. Look for Carolina to run and Illinois to run right alongside it. Both teams like to use their strength in transition to propel high-scoring affairs. With no one playing better than Sean May right now, Carolina will have the advantage inside. If Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton can keep scoring at May's level, the Tar Heels will prove why talent sometimes beats everything else.
Look for Illinois to put up one hell of a fight. If Saturday's war with Arizona was any indication, Illinois won't quit. If it can match Williams and May's post presence, then Illinois will provide what is sure to be one of the largest viewing audiences in a long time with an instant classic. After a tournament that has had a little of everything, you can be sure the final weekend will be no different. With that said, the baby blue of the Heels will be cutting down the nets in St. Louis on Monday night.