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Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Chalk and the Cream

"Bet the chalk."

How many times have you heard that come March Madness? Yes, predict a few upsets along the way, and whatever you do, don't predict all four #1 seeds to make the Final Four, but definitely have two of them in there. So, if you had a final featuring Illinois and North Carolina, both of whom are #1 seeds, than you did just fine.

Monday night's NCAA final game features, arguably, the two best teams in the country. One, even with its #1 ranking for much of the year, somehow didn't get the respect it deserved. Some argued aloud, while others privately thought, that Illinois was a good team that benefitted from dominating a historically outstanding but currently underperforming conference. In other words, they were a paper-tiger #1. (The Big Ten's performance in the NCAA Tournament has strongly dispelled the notion that the Big Ten had an off year). The second didn't always get the respect it deserved. What, with the talent they have, argued the pundits, they should have been head and shoulders above their competition. That they weren't #1 in the polls said more about them than anything else, or so went the conventional wisdom.

All of this, when tossed into the cauldron that contains both the NCAA final game and the discussions that surround it, make for a compelling national title game. You have the long-time assistant coach, Bruce Weber, now in the national spotlight, and the best coach not to win a major (err, sorry, that's golf's slogan), I mean national title, opposing him. Will Roy Williams get the NCAA title monkey off his back, or will he further solidify his Greg Norman-at-the-Masters/Buffalo Bills status?

Both Illinois and North Carolina showed a lot yesterday. The Fightin' Illini demonstrated that if you have excellent guards, a good small forward and three good players who can play the 4 and the 5, you will be in the hunt until the end. More than that, though, is that they showed excellent discipline at both ends of the floor. Their offense showed a precision normally found in the manufacture of Swiss watches, and their defense was better than what Johnny Cochran and F. Lee Bailey put on for O.J. Simpson. It wasn't so much that Bruce Weber outcoached Rick Pitino from a game-coaching standpoint, but it was that Illinois was better drilled and perhaps even better prepared.

Carolina didn't necessarily show the discipline that Illinois did, and their opponent wasn't as formidable. That said, they finally relaxed, and they stopped playing down to the level of their opposition. Put simply, they got their offense and defense into gear, and the talent permitted themselves to stretch their wings and fly. Sean May, Raymond Felton, Jawad Williams, Marwin Williams, Rashad McCants, Jackie Manuel, well, it's hard to find another NCAA title contender in NCAA history with as much talent. You probably have to go back to the UNLV teams in the late 1980's and early 1990's or the Houston teams in the mid-1980's (the ones with Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Micheaux, Michael Young, Clyde Drexler and Rob Williams). The Tar Heels were fun to watch last night.

Monday night presents an interesting contrast, a contrast between a talented, well-drilled team (all of whose guards were either second- or third-team all-Americans) -- Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head -- and an amazingly talented team whose talent, when maximized, has no peer, at least this year.

When I picked my brackets, I had Carolina in the finals (losing to Wake) and several weeks before that I had forecast a Carolina NCAA title. I supposed I backed off Carolina if only because of all of the pressure on Roy Williams, a fear that the talent wouldn't mesh well enough to win six straight games, and concern that Carolina has a tendency to play down to the level of its competition. I didn't give Illinois as much respect, because I just didn't like the Big Ten's overall performance this year. That goes to show you that sometimes the best team in a conference that had an off-year in the regular season still can be a very special team.

I am torn about predicting a winner in this game. On the one hand, Illinois showed great character in recovering to beat Arizona (I confess I had turned the game off with 3:30 to go figuring it was over) and then in handling a hot Louisville team. On the other hand, Carolina has more than acquitted itself in this tournament, they have talent to burn, and Roy Williams will win a national title as a head coach some day.

I think it will be Monday night.

The "Bet the Chalk" advice only goes so far. As with the game "Rock, Paper, Scissors", you need something to help you decide. Chalk ties chalk.

Cream (in the form of the best talent) beats everything.


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