The strongest have survived into Monday's final

Originally Published: April 2, 2005
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- In a triumph of basketball Darwinism, we have a survival-of-the-fittest national championship game.

Illinois, the No. 1 team in the AP poll since Dec. 6, meets North Carolina, the No. 2 team in the AP poll for six of the past seven weeks. It's the first time in 30 years that the two top-ranked teams have played in the final, since No. 1 UCLA sent John Wooden into retirement with one last trophy after beating No. 2 Kentucky.

The Illini, toughest team in America, takes on the Tar Heels, the most talented team in America. The guys in orange have lost a single game by a single point and have captivated the nation. The guys in powder blue can put five pro prospects on the floor at one time, have every imaginable weapon and have captivated NBA scouts.

Illinois passes the ball like nobody else, with 289 more assists than turnovers on the season. Carolina puts the ball in the hoop like nobody else, leading the nation in scoring and playing in constant attack mode.

Luther Head
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesWill Head be able to repeat his six-3s performance Monday?

Hoopheads, rejoice. This is the collision of juggernauts college basketball fans have been daydreaming about, playing in their heads, cussing and discussing, since before Christmas. North Carolina-Illinois is finally here.

This could have been a sequel. A December ACC-Big Ten matchup would have been a natural, but it also would have been the third straight between the two teams – so ESPN opted for Illinois-Wake Forest and Carolina-Indiana.

That's fine. A high-octane matchup like this is better in April.

The final mortals were dispatched in dominant fashion Saturday night in the Edward Jones Dome. Illinois steadily squeezed the life out of Louisville's offense, holding the Cardinals to their second-lowest point total of the season. Carolina launched a breathtaking second-half blitzkrieg on Michigan State, scoring 26 points in the first 7½ minutes of the stanza and holding the Spartans to 29 percent shooting after the break.

After the sensational drama last weekend, the expected anticlimax happened. Illinois and North Carolina were simply too good.

Now it's down to the first 1-seed vs. 1-seed championship game since Duke-Connecticut in 1999, and just the fourth since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979. If you're hunting for omens, here's one for the Carolina crowd: the school's two most recent national titles were earned as a No. 1 seed against a No. 1 seed: over Georgetown in 1982 and Michigan in 1993.

For the record, all three of the previous one vs. one clashes went down to the final minute – and all three featured an ugly crunch-time moment, from Fred Brown's pass to Chris Webber's timeout to Trajan Langdon's failed final shot attempt. We could be in for more late-game theater Monday night.

The Illini do it with guards who dish better than anyone in America. Carolina coach Roy Williams was so smitten with their ball movement that in December he showed his team a videotape clip of the Illini passing the orange 15 times without a dribble.

"That's the way I think basketball should be played," Williams said.

The Heels do it with the most powerful interior player in America. Sean May is averaging 21.6 points and 10.8 rebounds this NCAA Tournament, wrecking defenses every step of the way.

But just when you bill this as Team Perimeter against the Round Mound of May, somebody else jumps up and demands attention. Saturday night it was Roger Powell, Illinois' fourth offensive option, ripping Louisville for 18 second-half points. And then it was North Carolina's No. 4 offensive option, Jawad Williams, scoring 20 and grabbing eight rebounds on the Spartans.

Both seniors, by the way.

Monday night, one storyline of suffering will come to an end – and another will live on. Illinois, in its 100th year of basketball, will shrug off the title of Best Program Without a Title, or Roy Williams will no longer be the Best Coach Without a Ring.

You hate to even think what it will be like for the loser.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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