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Final Impression: Team Against Talent

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page D01

ST. LOUIS, April 3 -- During a meeting with his basketball team earlier this season, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams pulled out a videotape of highlights from one of Illinois' games. Williams wanted the Tar Heels to see the Fighting Illini's unselfish play and teamwork. He stressed one play during which Illinois passed the basketball 19 times and dribbled only twice before scoring a basket.

"I think they're very much a team," Williams said Sunday. "The only thing that's important to them is their team winning. I like the T-shirts they're wearing around now that say, 'Finish The Job.' "

From left, Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, Roger Powell Jr. and the rest of the top-ranked Fighting Illini have been lauded for their unselfishness. (Robert Cohen -- St. Louis Post-dispatch Via AP)

The Fighting Illini and Tar Heels will try to finish the job at the Edward Jones Dome on Monday night in the NCAA tournament's national championship game. It will be the seventh final between the top two teams in the Associated Press top 25 poll and first since No. 1 UCLA beat No. 2 Kentucky, 92-85, on March 31, 1975, which gave Bruins Coach John Wooden his 10th national championship in his final game.

Like that game 30 years ago, the showdown between No. 1 Illinois and No. 2 North Carolina is the duel college basketball fans have envisioned since the tournament began.

"It's going to be a great matchup," Illini guard Deron Williams said. "It's the matchup everybody wanted, and we get to play it out on the court, instead of everybody talking about it."

Illinois, which is playing in its first NCAA final in 100 years of basketball, has been considered the best team in the country since beating Wake Forest on Dec. 1. North Carolina, which has won three titles and finished second four times, is considered the team with the most talent, with as many as six players who could be chosen in June's NBA draft.

"The top two teams in the country are playing for the championship," North Carolina center Sean May said. "You wouldn't want to have it any other way. We just need to finish it off."

May planned to show his teammates a video of his own in the team hotel Sunday night. For Christmas, his father, former Indiana all-American Scott May, gave him a DVD of highlights from the 1976 NCAA tournament final, in which the Hoosiers beat Michigan, 86-68, to finish 32-0, the last Division I team to go undefeated.

"I've had it ever since we started the tournament," May said. "I just want everybody to see the celebration they went through, the enjoyment they had. They had five NBA players on that team that got drafted the very next year. They were willing to sacrifice a lot for the cause of winning the national championship."

When North Carolina won its last national title in 1993, the Tar Heels beat Michigan, a team with more talented players. That was the last game the Wolverines' Fab Five played together. Michigan players Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber have enjoyed long NBA careers. Center Eric Montross and forward George Lynch were the only Tar Heels to play in the NBA.

"I think the Pistons last year made a statement in the NBA about playing a game a certain way, sharing the ball, being a team," said Williams, who has won 39 NCAA tournament games, the most by a coach that hasn't won a national title. "I'm hoping that has gone over into the rest of college basketball. I'm hoping the way we play, the way Illinois plays, some of the other great teams, that people will decide that truly is what's most important -- your team. Not just one guy shooting or one guy high-flying around, things like that."

When Williams returned to coach his alma mater, shortly after his last Kansas team lost to Syracuse, 81-78, in the 2003 national title game, he inherited a team loaded with star players. But the Tar Heels, who finished 8-20 only three years ago, were considered a dysfunctional unit whose players were more worried about getting rid of their coach and getting to the NBA quickly.

After finishing 19-11 and losing to Texas in the NCAA second round last year, North Carolina entered this season ranked No. 4 but lost to Santa Clara, 77-66, in its first game. But the Tar Heels have won 32 of 35 games since and won the ACC regular season title.

"Yes, Illinois is a team, but at the same time, that kind of makes me upset that people are always saying we're not a team, just a talented team," Tar Heels point guard Raymond Felton said. "We are a team. We haven't won 32 games this season just off talent."

Illinois also feels somewhat slighted by suggestions that the Tar Heels are more talented. The Illini won their first 29 games this season, lost only once and can set an NCAA record with 38 victories if they beat North Carolina.

"We're not surprised," Illinois guard Luther Head said. "People have been saying North Carolina was the better team all year. We'll see. We're going to play this game, and everybody will know who the best team is."

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