- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

ST. LOUIS — Illinois has ended every practice since October chanting “national champions.”

“We’ll see if that was rhetoric or meant something,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said yesterday.

He will discover soon enough whether the Fighting Illini (36-1) can become the third team since 1995 to enter the NCAA tournament with the No.1 ranking and emerge with a title. Illinois must first get past fourth-seeded Louisville (33-4) in tonight’s semifinals at Edward Jones Dome.

Illinois is just two wins away from a championship after spending three months atop the rankings. After his team pulled out a 90-89 overtime defeat of Arizona in the Chicago Regional final last Saturday, Weber conceded he was a little relieved to reach the final weekend of the season.

“We’ve been the big target,” he said. “We deserve to be here.”

The easy games are long past, though. The Illini, who rallied from a 15-point deficit against Arizona, may have the crowd edge tonight, but Louisville is an imposing foe. The Cardinals overcame a 20-point deficit to beat West Virginia 93-85 in overtime for the Albuquerque Regional title.

Illinois will have to earn its national crown, and its three-man backcourt will meet its mirror image in Louisville. There will be lots of long-range shots and plenty of scoring. The pace will be blistering, hardly a comforting thought for two teams that possess little depth.

This isn’t basketball. This is survivor on the hardwood.

“We match up with anybody in the country,” Louisville guard Larry O’Bannon said. “Not knocking their guards, but we’re just as good, too. [Tonight] will be our opportunity to show what we can do. … We have the confidence that we can exploit them.”

Louisville coach Rick Pitino watched nearly 20 Illinois game films looking for a lineup flaw. It didn’t happen.

“We have matchup problems with every one of their guys,” Pitino said. “Hopefully, they have some with us.”

Illinois’ Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams combined to form perhaps the best backcourt in the country. They can run down opponents, play defense and shoot 3-pointers.

Louisville’s backcourt is earning notice, too. Maybe they’re outnumbered with only two traditional guards, but O’Bannon and Taquan Dean are impressive scorers.

However, the frontcourts might decide the outcome. Illinois forward Roger Powell is the best of the teams’ big men, but Louisville swingman Francisco Garcia can carry the Cardinals.

“We play a big role on this team,” Powell said of Illinois’ two-man frontcourt. “The inside is going to open a lot. You can’t rely on one aspect of this team.”

Pitino is prepared to use multiple defenses. After abandoning the zone when West Virginia was hitting 3-pointers, Louisville is willing to play man-to-man against Illinois.

“Against Illinois, you can’t stay with one defense,” Pitino said. “They’re too good for that. You have to change up to keep them off guard.”

But Pitino conceded Louisville hasn’t rebounded consistently.

“It’s been one of our weaknesses all year, our Achilles’ heel,” he said. “We’re not overly physical, overly tall, so we realize we have to gang rebound.”

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