The battle for college basketball's men's national championship will be settled Monday night in Saint Louis, as the Fighting Illini of Illinois take on the North Carolina Tar Heels, a title game that features the nation's two top-ranked teams.
It is the first time in 30 years that the two top-ranked teams have played in the final. Illinois has lost just one game this season - a one-point loss at that - on the way to its top-ranked 37-1 record. But number-two North Carolina is considered the most-talented college team in the country.
The Illini punched their ticket to the title game with a surprisingly easy 72-57 win over Louisville, in Saturday's first semifinal. North Carolina is 32-4, after sloughing off a sub-par first half performance to come blazing back for an 87-71 victory over Michigan State.
Illinois has made an art of passing the ball - a fact that has not escaped the attention of North Carolina center Sean May.
"They distribute the ball better than any team I think we have seen," he said. "Coach pulled out a clip one time where they just moved the ball 15 times with no dribble. And, they have three really good guards, they run, they can play half-court and they shoot really well."
But Carolina is best at putting the ball in the hoop - leading the nation in scoring, with an average of almost 89 points per game. Even so, Illinois coach Bruce Weber says his team set getting to the title game as its goal a long time ago.
"You know, we wrote April 4 on the board about six weeks ago, seven weeks ago, and we are playing on April 4 in the National Championship," he said. "So we are very excited."
It is just the fourth time two regional top-seeds have met in the final since the National Collegiate Athletic Association began seeding teams in 1979. All three of the previous clashes went down to the final minute. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams is not underestimating Illinois, which he calls college basketball's best team.
"I think they have shown it throughout the course of the whole season. I mean, they are a veteran team. They're very well coached. They're extremely focused," added Coach Williams. "I saw the T-shirts they were wearing at the shoot-around this morning where it said 'finish the job.' So they are a big-time team."
Monday night's game will also see the end of one futility streak while prolonging another. Roy Williams is making his fifth appearance at the Final Four, and has made it to the title game twice. But he has never taken his team to the championship.
Illinois is also at the Final Four for the fifth time. The school's basketball program is in its 100th year, and is hoping to celebrate the landmark by winning its first championship in its inaugural appearance in the title game.