Monday, April 04, 2005

NCAA Title Game Preview

I'll bang this out quickly because the game starts in two hours, 25 minutes. My prediction is the same as it was at the beginning of the Tournament: UNC over Illinois. As for the rest of the game, look for the following:

(1) Will Rashad McCants get the lead out? Billy Packer criticized McCants for being beaten to loose balls at least twice by diving MSU players on Saturday. Full-bore hustle is necessary today, especially because Illinois is the smaller and quicker team.

(2) Will Deron Williams do it again? Williams shut down Francisco Garcia and Salim Stoudamire in the Illin's last two games. But there are some key facts that work against him tonight: (a) Raymond Felton is compact and strong, not wiry like Garcia or small like Stoudamire, so Williams can't outbulk Felton as easily; (b) Felton is the primary ballhandler, Garcia and Stoudamire are essentially off-guards; (c) UNC has more than competent help for Felton in Melvin Scott to go up against Dee Brown; (d) don't be surprised if this matchup never unfolds -- the ESPN heads said Deron-Felton; it could be Deron/McCants all game.

(3) Who will shoot for the Illins? If Williams and Brown honk like they did Saturday, Illinois is in trouble. The Illins need 20 points from their starting frontline (Powell, Augustine) and two of the little guys to hit their shots.

(4) Beware the Heels' early second-half offense: As I noted Saturday, Roy Williams is very good at charging up his kids to fly around in the early second half and enjoy an offensive flurry off the halftime adjustments. Ask Iowa State and MSU about it.

(5) The understated aspect: The UNC defense. Let's be honest, UNC is not going to distinguish itself among the '84 Georgetowns or '86 Duke squads as one of the best defending teams to reach the Finals, but I expect Roy Williams to work two players a lot harder than you may think: Jackie Manuel (all-conference defender) and David Noel. Those two may see over 50 minutes combined tonight to shut down the two hottest of the three Illins bombers: Head/Brown/Deron Williams. Note that Noel didn't play in UNC's 88-81 win over the Illins last season. UNC's best offensive quintet is May-J. Williams-M. Williams-McCants-Felton. I'm expecting that grouping to see less time than usual.

And finally a quick note: there's been a ton of hype compressed into a short time span about how this is a matchup between the #1 and #2 in the final AP poll for the first time since UCLA beat Kentucky in '75. That's nice, but it's all rubbish. UConn was better than MSU in '99 but the AP ranked the Huskies third for some reason, MSU second and Duke first. In '82 and '93, two of the best three also met. And there have been plenty of times where the top two teams (realistically, if not by ranking) met in the National Semifinals ('85 Georgetown-St. John's, '86 Duke-Kansas, '88 'Zona-Oklahoma, '96 Kentucky-Massachusetts, '97 Kentucky-Minnesota, '99 Duke-MSU [actual ranking here], '04 UConn-Duke). Of that lot, only UConn and Kentucky won the whole thing.

Enjoy the game.

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