Saturday, April 2, 2005 Updated: April 3, 5:40 PM ET
Can't lose with these choices
By Eric Neel Page 2
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ST. LOUIS -- It's time to take sides. We've got a dream matchup. Game of the quarter-century. No. 1 vs. No. 2. Two storied programs, two great coaches, two incredibly versatile and talented clubs.
Who do you side with? What's your call? Don't sit on the fence, now. Get in it.
Consider your options and make a choice.
Why should you root for Illinois?
• How about Bruce Weber's stirring, ongoing tribute to the late, great William Hickey? (Think "Prizzi's Honor.")
• How about Roger Powell Jr., a licensed minister, who prayed at halftime of the semifinal game that he would be worthy of the moment in which his team needed him most, and then went on an insane 18-point scoring binge from inside and out in the second half?
How can you root against Roger Powell, Jr., and his higher calling?
The kid is humble, hungry, and coming off the game of his life. Not to mention the fact that his put-back off his own missed three goes directly into the pantheon (along with Grant Hill's one-hander and Michael Graham's breakaway tomahawk) of all-time great Final Four dunks. This is a guy you can root for.
• How about the fact that the team loves the three? Thirty attempts in the semis? "It's part of how we stay loose," Weber said afterward. "We all shoot 'em." Amen and keep it coming, Coach. And they will; they hit at a .397 clip from beyond the arc this season and took 22 a night. That's been good for a 37-1 record so far. Think they're going to change it up now? Neither do I.
And wasn't it sweet the way they took the three, Rick Pitino's weapon of choice, and shot his boys out of the water with it? Isn't that a little bit of poetry, a little bit of panache? Can't you get with that? I think you can.
• How about the way they move the ball? The game against Louisville was tight at the half, but you could see the second half coming. The Illini were whipping passes into open spaces, making extra passes, finding each other in spots to shoot. In other words, they were playing terrific team basketball. It was a thing of beauty; and when the shooting percentage went up in the second half, it was prettier still. "They distribute the ball better than any team we've seen all year," North Carolina's Sean May said.
• How about what it would mean to Weber to share a championship, in his head and heart, with his mother?
And while we're at it, let's not forget about Lou Henson and his juicy orange blazer getting a chance, finally, to exhale and maybe even shed a tear.
Because remember now, Illinois has never been to the championship game. So rooting for them is rooting for history-in-the-making.
And while we're on the topic of history, keep in mind that their next win (which would be 38) would be the most wins in a season by any college team ever.
• How about the dawn of a new day in Big Ten hoops? Gone are the "tough" (read slow), "strong" (read slower), "physical" (read slower still) days. Here's to the start of the era of quickness, precision, and flow. Here's to the new paradigm in the Heartland.
• How about Deron Williams on defense? The man shut down Salim Stoudamire when it mattered most, and now he's gone and shut down Francisco Garcia when it mattered even more. His coach calls him pudgy, but the kid is a rock. And you better start rooting for him now, when it's still special, because it won't be too long before he's doing his thing in The Association and he won't be a secret any more.
And what of Carolina? What's the case for the Tar Heels?
• They're not wearing any orange, which makes them outnumbered underdogs on Monday night -- and everybody loves the underdog. And just as importantly, it makes them the much more appealing aesthetic choice.
You can't NOT watch Raymond Felton's magic.
• Raymond Felton is a wizard. In the tradition of Ernie D and Tiny, he spins, dishes, shoots, and does it all with a little extra mustard on the hot dog. Did you see the way he pirouetted by Hill and Neitzel in the second half Saturday night? The kid plays with exuberance. He's got that thing you want when you're sitting on the couch watching the game: The giggle factor. More than any other player in the title game (maybe in the whole of the tournament), he's capable of things that make you laugh and shake your head, just happy for the chance to have seen him work his magic.
• They run -- first, last, and always. The sped-up NBA game has had a lot of ink this spring, but let's give North Carolina some love, too. They've been good for 88.4 ppg this season (more than 11 better than Illinois, by the way); and if the Illini (with their passing and defense) play the game the way it's supposed to be played, so do the Tar Heels (with their entertaining, aggressive approach to turning every rebound and turnover into a chance to break).
In fact, they play so fast you're going to feel a little bit guilty rooting for them, because you're going to be having almost too much fun.
• Sean May is a workhorse with touch. There just aren't that many of these guys. His 20-20 nights are special. And even if his body turns out to be a tough fit at the next level, there's something suited-to-the-circumstance about his brilliance that's worth getting behind.
He's like Christian Laettner was once upon a time -- the consummate college player -- only without the annoying hair and smugness.
• They go on runs. Games are close, and then they're not. They did it to Iowa State in the first round and they did it to Michigan State again last night.
It's a drama-killing tendency, no doubt; but while it's going on, complete with alley-oops, threes, and fastbreaks run the way you draw them up in practice, it's an exhilarating thing to watch.
• If they win, we will all mercifully be spared the agony of hearing another reporter ask Roy Williams about never winning a national title, and we will never again have to listen to the coach lie about how comfortable he is with his championship-less record. You just can't put a price tag on something like that.
• They're an emotional group (and I'm not just talking about Williams crying all the time). They have swagger, from Felton's 30-foot bounce passes to Marvin Williams' no-quarter blocks on the block.
You can't quite imagine this team playing for Dean Smith. He'd have them buttoned-down. Roy has them dialed up. This means they're prone to some boneheadedness, yes, but it also means they have the fire-in-the-belly thing you want to see in a club that is about to go heads-up with the No. 1 team in the land in what, for this weekend anyway, is essentially that team's home gym.
Carolina is no major underdog (this is an AP No. 1 vs AP No. 2 matchup . . . for the first time since UCLA-Kentucky in 1975, by the way); but if they win, that win will come with an extra helping of "how ya like me now," an added bit of "gotcha."
• And did I mention they don't wear orange? Not on the sneaks, not in the headbands, not no orange not nowhere.
So in the end, who do you choose? Tough call. The matchup is as close as the matchup, if you know what I'm saying.
As for me, I'm going with Carolina. The prospect of Roy not getting "the question" is just too sweet to resist.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. His Basketball Jones column will appear each week during the NBA season.