ST. LOUIS – This is the way it's supposed to be: the two best teams in the country playing for the national championship.
Rarely does it work out, of course.
There's usually those annoying little upsets along the way in the NCAA tournament (search), messing up the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup.
But it all fell into place this season. Top-ranked Illinois has lost only one game and cruises into Monday night's title game with a chance to make history. Standing in the way is second-ranked North Carolina, generally viewed as the most talented team in the country and actually favored by 2 1/2 points over the gritty, experienced Illini.
"The basketball gods looked over college basketball this year," Illinois coach Bruce Weber (search) said Sunday. "It's just a great scenario. You've got the teams that people have talked about since the beginning of the year, the top two teams.
"Whether you say they have the best talent, we have the best team, whatever. It's the two teams that have been there all along, and we're playing for the national championship. That doesn't happen very often."
Indeed, it hasn't happened since 1975, when No. 1 UCLA — inspired by John Wooden's final game as coach — knocked off No. 2 Kentucky 92-85 for the title.
But this game seemed inevitable all along, and Saturday's semifinals drove the point home emphatically.
After an amazing regional weekend — overtime after overtime, improbable shots and amazing rallies — Illinois and North Carolina justified their place in college basketball's hierarchy.
The Illini (37-1) cruised past Louisville 72-57 in the first game of the night. North Carolina (32-4) followed with a rout of its own, blowing out Michigan State 87-71.
Let's get it on!
"Personally, I think this is the matchup everybody wanted to see," North Carolina center Sean May said. "If you are going to win, you want to beat the best. They are probably thinking the same thing because they are the No. 1 team, but some people look at them as the underdog."
Illinois has been ranked No. 1 since December and equaled the record shared by Duke (1986, 1989) and UNLV (1987) for most wins in a single season. The core of the team — guards Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head — has been together for three years. In this, the 100th season of Illini basketball, they're determined to win the school's first national title.
Weber had T-shirts made up for his players that say "Finish The Job!!" across the back. A victory over North Carolina in the final game would be an emphatic, dramatic finish to this most remarkable of seasons, affirming the Illini as one of the greatest teams ever.
"I think we would be right up there at the top to be able to compete this whole season and have one loss," forward Roger Powell Jr. said. "It would be an honor to play on a team with such great talent and such a great coach."
The Illini don't take offense at those who portray this as a Team vs. Talent showdown. Still, they found themselves defending the way they're perceived — as the unsung group of guys going against Carolina's group of stars.
"We have NBA people at our games every time," Weber said. "We're going to have some guys drafted, whether it's this year or next year. But we don't have quite the names, I guess, and athletic guys that maybe they have."
The reason the Tar Heels get the edge starts with May, the 6-foot-9 center who averages 17.1 points and 10.9 rebounds this season. North Carolina also has Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams and Raymond Felton. They'll all go to the NBA soon, as will the sixth man, freshman forward Marvin Williams.
"They'll have a lottery pick coming off their bench," Illinois forward James Augustine said. "They're obviously more talented. But when it comes down to the situation, it's who's the better team."
Of course, Illinois is hardly devoid of players who'll get a shot in the NBA. Start with Deron Williams, a tenacious defender and super ballhandler who may have played himself into the lottery.
Head can shoot 3s with the best. Brown has been dubbed the "One-Man Fastbreak" for his ability to blow by defenders in the open court. Powell showed an inside-outside game Saturday — making 3-pointers and lay-ups with equal aplomb — that makes him hard to defend.
But the theme people keep coming back to with the Illini is their unselfishness.
"I saw them on film once. They made 19 passes to get the shot they wanted," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
Still, the Tar Heels coach has probably never had a better chance to win his first national championship.
Williams took Kansas to four Final Fours, but the Jayhawks came up short each time. In this, just two years removed from the anguished decision to return to Chapel Hill, he's back again with his most talented team yet.
"We definitely want this for Coach Williams, but we also want this for ourselves," Felton said. "This is something we've all dreamed about since we stepped onto the North Carolina campus."
And this is the game that everyone has been waiting for all season.