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Ali-Frazier, Lakers-Celts, Tar Heels-Illini

Like the Thrilla in Manilla and 10 NBA Finals, tonight's showdown for NCAA men's title involves sport's best.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published April 4, 2005


ST. LOUIS - It's the championship game pairing college basketball fans have wanted for months.

No.1 Illinois and No.2 North Carolina.

"Very seldom does it happen," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Sunday afternoon.

The top teams in the final regular-season Associated Press poll haven't met in the NCAA Tournament finale since 1975, when No.1 UCLA beat No.2 Kentucky 92-85 to give John Wooden the last of his 10 titles.

In an age of increasing parity, the Fighting Illini and Tar Heels seemingly distanced themselves from a pack of about a dozen title contenders and by reaching tonight's game at the Edward Jones Dome have made that perception reality.

"The basketball gods looked over college basketball this year," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

But this matchup has been two years in the making, and the roads for Illinois and North Carolina have been strikingly similar and inextricably linked.

In Chapel Hill in the spring of 2003, the players were so unhappy with the hard-driving Matt Doherty that many considered transferring. It didn't help that the Tar Heels didn't make the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.

"I thought Matt Doherty was a great coach. And I still do, and I have a great deal of respect for Coach Doherty," junior center Sean May said. "But that situation didn't work out."

He was forced to resign, and all eyes turned to Williams. Again. He turned down the job in 2001 when Bill Guthridge retired. Once back home, Williams found he had to go slowly and a bit more softly than he might have in another situation.

"I think when Coach first came in, he was more worried about our feelings," senior forward Jackie Manuel said. "He really didn't want to rub anybody the wrong way."

Williams didn't know the players, nor did they know him and his philosophy.

The Tar Heels knew Williams' successful track record and respected him, but trust takes time. The Tar Heels made the NCAA field but lost in the second round. Williams met with each player and talked about the offseason and upcoming season.

"Last year was so much of an adjustment process for us, not really understanding exactly what he wanted," May said, adding they got it "by the beginning of this year and we're more of a team."

Like their peers a time zone away, the Illini players were upset about their coach, Bill Self, in the spring of 2003. But not about his style, rather his decision to take over for Williams at Kansas.

"They liked Bill," Weber said. "They were hurt. It's like a girlfriend dropping you. It hangs and lingers. The pain lingers. There's a knot in your stomach. I understood that. But I didn't know how drastic it was ... because I thought they'd be mad at him and be happy I came."

Weber will tell you one reason he got the job was his track record for staying put. He was an assistant with Gene Keady at Purdue for nearly two decades before taking over at Southern Illinois. Even there, at a mid major, he rejected annual offers.

But in Champaign, Weber had what seemed like a daily crisis involving an unhappy player.

"It was tough on everybody," said senior center Nick Smith, the former Bloomingdale High star who signed with the Illini when Lon Kruger was the coach. (The former Gator coach left for the NBA before Smith's first season.) "There was a week of practice last year where things got ugly."

An assistant, Chris Lowery, urged Weber to yell at his players to get their respect. He told Lowery, now at Southern Illinois, he had to gain their respect. A turning point came when Weber called the team together, had players sit on the floor of the practice facility and glance at the Big Ten championship banners. He asked Smith how many Illinois had won from 1984-98. There were none.

Weber had helped Purdue win six during that time. That gave him some credibility, and the players began paying attention.

"(We) just realized if we didn't buy in, we were going to head downhill," junior guard Deron Williams said.

Another key was how Weber dealt with guard Luther Head, who had offcourt troubles early last season. Head offered to quit. "No way," Weber said.

He believed his first job is as an educator and, as such, he should help kids change, adjust and grow. He also realized if he turned his back on Head, "I may lose them all." He not only won over Head, who has blossomed into a star as a senior this season, but the other players, too.

"I think everybody saw that Coach cared about his players; that he cared more about us off the court than on the court," Head said.

That helped them understand him and his system. The season ended in the Sweet 16, but the stage had been set.

This stage, tonight.

"I think it's a matchup that pretty much everybody wanted, everybody anticipated," Deron Williams said. "It's finally here."