tampabay.com

Illini, Tar Heels want to shake reputations

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published April 4, 2005


ST. LOUIS - Neither team seems to like the characterization that one is great (Illinois) and the other has great talent (North Carolina).

The implication is the Illini don't have players with breathtaking ability while the Heels are solo performers winning by being so much better than opponents.

"If anyone looks at our team and who we've played, they'd say we have an athletic team, just as athletic as them," Illinois senior forward Roger Powell said. "Maybe better."

They don't have a roster replete with potential first-round picks like North Carolina. But junior guard Dee Brown was the Big Ten player of the year, junior guard Deron Williams the Chicago Region most outstanding player and both, along with senior guard Luther Head , earned all-America honors from an organization.

The Heels don't pass the ball 19 times before finding the right man in the right place at the right time as the Illini have done. (North Carolina coach Roy Williams showed them that possession on tape.) But they lead the nation in assists.

"We haven't won 32 games this season just off talent," point guard Raymond Felton said.

LAST TIME: The Tar Heels beat the Illini 88-81 in their most recent meeting on Dec.2, 2003, as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Jawad Williams had 18 points and 12 rebounds, Sean May 23 points and 14 rebounds.

"It was more of a shootout. We didn't guard them. They didn't guard us," Illinois coach Bruce Webber said. "One of the coaches watched it the other day and talked about it. They just couldn't believe how far we've come since that point. I'm sure they feel the same way as a team."

What stands out most for Williams is the change of venue.

"It was in Greensboro, N.C., not right across the river from a lot of orange," he said. "It was a big-time college atmosphere in Greensboro. Our fans were fantastic."

BIG CONTRIBUTION: Illinois senior center Nick Smith was a bit bummed after last week's region final. Yes, the Illini won, erasing a 15-point deficit in the last 4:04 then beating Arizona in overtime. But he didn't play.

"I was just sitting there keeping my fingers crossed hoping I'd get in there," he said of Saturday's semifinal. "I was watching the foul trouble we were having. (Powell) got two, and everybody else had one. So I thought if somebody gets one more, maybe I'll get in there. I got lucky. Jack (Ingram) got his second foul, and I got a chance."

He played six minutes in the first half, scoring four points on 2-of-3 shooting.

BEST PRESENT EVER: When May found out the final would be played April4, he knew it would be a special day. May turns 21 today.

"It would be a great present for me," he said.