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The One We've Been Waiting For

By John Feinstein
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page D09


As it turned out, those who thought Saturday's semifinals at the Final Four would not be able to live up to the drama of last week's region finals were right.

Illinois was simply too deep and too good for Louisville, and North Carolina made Michigan State pay for trying to play up-tempo with a second-half burst that left the Spartans out of gas. The good news is that Saturday's blowouts set up what should be a superb Monday night.

North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, left, and the Illini's Bruce Weber each understand the beauty or brutality that might await them. (Peter Jones -- Reuters)

These are college basketball's two best teams -- by a pretty good margin -- and each has a story line that needs no artificial hype. Illinois has never played in a championship game. North Carolina has played in seven. Both coaches are in their second season in charge of their programs, but they have taken remarkably different routes to this moment in their lives. Each team is led by players who are either playing their last college game or are almost certainly playing their last college game.

This is the first championship game between teams that ended the regular season ranked 1-2 since UCLA beat Kentucky in 1975 in John Wooden's last game. But a better comparison might be the 1999 championship game between 37-1 Duke and 33-2 Connecticut. There was no doubt in anyone's mind then that the two best teams were playing for the title. If those teams had played 10 times, they almost certainly would have split. The same is probably true for Illinois and Carolina. But they will only play once, which means one of them is going to finish a wonderful season on a painful note. That is the beauty and the brutality of this event.

Roy Williams would probably prefer that Illinois was undefeated, in part because the pressure on the Illini would be almost unbearable and in part because he could have said to his star center Sean May: Win this one for your daddy.

Alas, Illinois lost its regular season finale to Ohio State, meaning that the Indiana team led by Scott May in 1976 will remain the last unbeaten team for at least another year. Instead, Williams will tell his players the same thing Illinois Coach Bruce Weber will tell his: This is a forever game. Either way, you are going to remember it forever, so you might as well leave every last ounce of energy you have on the floor.

The championship game is always pressure-filled because of that once-in-a-lifetime feel. Occasionally, players get to play on Monday night more than once in a career, but not often. Duke made it to four championship games in five years between 1990 and 1994; Arkansas went back-to-back in 1994 and 1995, and Kentucky made three straight between 1996 and 1998. Since then, only Duke in 1999 and 2001 has played in more than one title game in any four-year period. Carolina last played in the championship game in 1993, when most of its current players were in third or fourth grade.

For Illinois, the stakes are obvious. This has been a magical season for the Illini. They have been a feel-good team almost from Day One, sending an early message about how good they were by crushing then top-ranked Wake Forest in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and then holding on to the top ranking the rest of the season. This has been their Final Four because the school is less than 200 miles from St. Louis and the city has been overrun with people in orange since Thursday.

They all know that as fabulous as their season has been, they're going to walk away feeling empty if they lose this game. Sure, they'll hang a Final Four banner regardless, but the memories of what was a dream season until the final chapter will be accompanied by a dull ache.

But all of that is just as true of Carolina. The return of Roy Williams to replace Matt Doherty two years ago was supposed to restore the Tar Heels to their rightful spot among college basketball's elite. It has done exactly that. But because it has been 12 years since Carolina's last national championship (the Tar Heels had actually lost four straight games in the Final Four before Saturday) and because of Williams's much-publicized quest to win an elusive title in this, his fifth Final Four, it will be difficult for Carolina people to feel all that good about second place.

Adding to that is the belief that at least two and perhaps all four of the non-seniors among Carolina's top six players could turn pro. Carolina people insist they are 100 percent sure May will return, win or lose Monday night. They are not nearly as sure about Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants or even super-freshman Marvin Williams. There's little doubt that Roy Williams will continue to recruit top players and keep the program competitive on a national level, but when you make it this far, there's no guarantee of when you will make it back. None of last year's Final Four teams made it past the round of 16 this year. Only one of 2003's Final Four teams has been as far as the round of eight since then.

If nothing else, Saturday's games proved exactly how good these teams are when they get on a roll. Carolina simply cannot afford to have a first half like the one it did Saturday because if it does it will be behind by more than five points. As good a perimeter shooting team as Illinois can be, the Illini have got to get some offense inside because they don't want to pin their hopes for a national championship on their ability to make three-pointers for 40 minutes. That said, if Carolina has a weakness, it is defending the three.

Each team knows the other can be exploited in certain places -- but only with near-perfect execution. May will score inside; Felton will get penetration. Can Deron Williams lock up McCants the way he locked up Salim Stoudamire and Francisco Garcia? Will Jawad Williams be as good Monday as he was Saturday? Can the Illinois big men keep May and Marvin Williams off the boards and prevent Carolina from running downhill, the way the Tar Heels did in the second half Saturday?

That's why we watch. On Monday night, one play, one possession, can and will change lives and memories forever. Lorenzo Charles, anyone? Chris Webber? Hakim Warrick? Others come to mind. Michael Jordan? Fred Brown? Rumeal Robinson? Someone is probably going to be added to that list tonight -- one side or the other. This game has that kind of potential. A national championship is at stake. The dreams of two teams and two coaches are at stake.

On Monday night, someone's dream will come true. Someone else's will be crushed. It will be a joy to watch. And it will be very tough to watch.

When they play "One Shining Moment" at some time just before midnight Monday, there will be a lot of tears. Many will cry because the song is so corny. The winners will cry from exhaustion and joy. The losers -- who will be in the locker room and won't be listening -- will be crying for an opportunity lost, one not likely to come again.

For most of us, Monday Night comes once a year. For those who play Monday Night, more often than not, it comes once in a lifetime.

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