- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Roy Williams was preparing for a regional final game against Wisconsin the next afternoon when he was interrupted by his old high school coach. Turn on a TV, he said. West Virginia and Louisville were going at it.

“You might want to watch this,” the coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels recalled his mentor saying. “I stopped watching the Wisconsin tape and watched the last three minutes. It was an unbelievable win, and sometimes you think a team is destined, and maybe that’s [Louisville].”

If Louisville is destiny’s child, the Cardinals will face a lot of sibling rivalry in the Final Four that begins Saturday in St. Louis.

Louisville overcame a 20-point deficit to beat West Virginia in overtime. Michigan State weathered a rim-rattling, miracle 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation to outlast Kentucky in double overtime. Illinois rallied from 15 down for a one-point triumph over Arizona in overtime.

And Williams’ Tar Heels? They merely broke open a close game late to advance.

One thing’s for certain: It’s going to be hard for the Final Four to surpass the Elite Eight and its record three overtime games for sheer thrills. Illinois, Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina head to St. Louis each with the kind of mentality perfect for CBS — that of a survivor.

“I’ve never seen the likes of that in my life,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “I’ve seen comebacks and great games but nothing like that. I couldn’t believe our game and then the Illinois game. Then I’m watching Sunday, and it’s Michigan State and two overtimes.

“It was an incredible weekend. College basketball is truly amazing because of the parity.”

Two No. 1 seeds, North Carolina and Illinois, remain. Louisville proved it deserved to be a No. 1, the victim of an obvious oversight that left it at No. 4. Only Michigan State at No. 5 was a real surprise.

The selection committee largely emerged with high marks for its seedings, but the margin between the elite and rest has narrowed.

“Somebody said, ‘David almost beat Goliath the other night,’ ” Williams said. “Once you get to the 16, there’s no David, no Goliaths, period. Everybody is really, really good.”

But which team will be good enough?

Illinois faces Louisville in the first game on Saturday. North Carolina, the last ACC team left, meets Michigan State afterward.

The possibilities aren’t endless, but they sure are intriguing.

A Big Ten showdown between Illinois and Michigan State in Monday night’s championship game would emphatically end any trash talk about the ACC being the nation’s top conference.

How about old school? Traditional powers North Carolina and Louisville are on opposite sides of the draw and could meet in the final.

Lastly, there is the conventional wisdom-salvaging possibility of a matchup between Illinois and North Carolina, the teams thought to be the best at the start of the tournament.

Here are reasons each team can win:

• Illinois (36-1) is the prohibitive favorite. The Fighting Illini’s three guards form the nation’s best backcourt.

Deron Williams was pure ice when he hit a 3-pointer to force overtime against Arizona, then nailed another to start the extra session. Dee Brown is heading to the NBA, and guard Luther Head is a defensive stopper.

Add the improved play by forward Roger Powell, and Illinois just might prove worthy of its hype.

“Illinois, I know, has been the best team in the country all year long,” Williams said.

History, however, is not on the Illini’s side: Only two No. 1 ranked teams in the past decade have gone on to win the championship.

• Louisville (33-4) has Pitino — the best college coach in the land and one who is taking a record third different team to the Final Four.

Pitino failed in the NBA, but he has a pro-level offense in his Cardinals: Five players average in double figures, led by Francisco Garcia (16 points) and Larry O’Bannon (15.2).

If the Cardinals can play perimeter defense, they can outscore Illinois.

• North Carolina (31-4) nearly blew it against Villanova and was pressed by Wisconsin. But the Tar Heels’ starters are so good that sixth man Marvin Williams would be a star for almost any other team.

Center Sean May (17.1, 10.9 rebounds) is the best big man left in the tournament. Guard Rashad McCants is finally healthy.

OK, insert your own Williams-can’t-win-the-big-one joke here, but that won’t be the reason North Carolina doesn’t take it all.

• Michigan State (26-6) is almost an afterthought, but it’s impossible to argue with what the Spartans have accomplished in this tournament. Tom Izzo’s team beat No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16, then scored the gutsy double-overtime win over Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

The Spartans don’t have a big scorer, but they do have five players who average between 9.5 to 13.8 points and they play the best defense of the four teams.

Now all the Final Four needs is three overtime games to exceed the preceding week’s drama. Otherwise, the last round could be a letdown.

“I think it can live up to the hype,” Pitino said. “I hope so for our sake.”

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