- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

ST. LOUIS — It is the Team vs. the Talent.

That formulation irked guard Ray Felton of North Carolina, the team with the talent. Likewise, forward James Augustine of Illinois, the team that posted the best record in college basketball this season.

It has become the sore point of tonight’s NCAA championship game between the Tar Heels and the Illini at Edward Jones Dome.

“Hearing that makes me upset,” Felton said. “We haven’t won 32 games just on talent.”

Said Augustine: “They have four, five, six pro prospects. They have a future lottery pick, but it’s who’s the better team.”

The first title game between the nation’s top two teams since 1975 promises to be a thriller. Maybe Illinois continues playing better as a team than its individual talent warrants. Perhaps North Carolina parlays its potential into one more decisive victory.

Either way, the upsets that marked the early rounds of this tournament didn’t derail this long-anticipated showdown.

Illinois (37-1) has been ranked No. 1 since December. North Carolina (32-4) has a starting lineup full of NBA prospects and a probable lottery pick on the bench.

“It’s the matchup everybody wanted, everybody anticipated,” Illinois guard Deron Williams said.

North Carolina is favored by 2 points over a team that was only six seconds away from a perfect record. Illinois is the underdog despite dominating Louisville 72-57 in the semifinals Saturday. The slight hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Deep down, it gets the juices flowing,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “We need that little adrenaline. I don’t know if we win the game without the fear factor.”

Said Illinois forward Roger Powell Jr.: “When we were 18-0, people still looked at us as the underdog. Even in the regional, people said it was Arizona or Oklahoma State.”

A victory tonight would give Illinois an NCAA single-season record 38th win. Only a last-second, 65-64 loss at Ohio State in the regular-season finale might keep the Illini from ranking among history’s elite if they beat North Carolina. Ironically, the three other 37-game winners weren’t national champions.

“We’re still creating history,” Weber said. “It would have been nice [to be undefeated]. In the long run, maybe [the loss] got us focused.”

North Carolina seeks its own immortality.

Roy Williams has coached in five Final Fours without winning a championship. Williams claimed to be little concerned about the outcome of tonight’s game, promising to be on the first tee of a golf course somewhere tomorrow.

However, it has been 12 years since “Big Blue” ruled college basketball, and Williams wants to complete the job of restoring a traditional powerhouse that just three years ago finished 8-20.

“Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and George Lynch came back and told us, ‘We are sick of watching you play like this,’” center Sean May said of former North Carolina players. “We didn’t realize that we were disappointing so many people together, and I think that brought this team closer together.”

Indeed, joining the list of former Tar Heels greats is important to many of the current players.

“One of the reasons I came to Carolina and one of the reasons I stuck around at Carolina was because I wanted to leave a legacy behind,” forward Jawad Williams said. “Hopefully, me and my teammates play a great game and go out with a bang.”

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