The Final Four consists of Illinois, Louisville, North Carolina, and Michigan State. Two teams were expected to be in this round. The other two are mild cinderellas, yet all four have certainly earned the right to be playing, Saturday.
The first matchup Saturday pits the Illini against the Louisville Cardinals in a game that features a lot of athletic talent on both teams. Louisville was predicted by some to be in the Final Four last year, but they failed to live up to expectations. Not many mentioned them in the early stages of the season, yet, they have blossomed into a well coached and experienced team. They run, slash, and hit threes as good as anyone. What they give away in size, they make up with speed and defense.
Illinois is riding high after a nearly perfect season, thus far, and an outstanding comeback in the closing minutes of the game against Arizona, didn't hurt their self-esteem much either. The Illini now have momentum, talent, and renewed confidence on their side; and it all comes with a new coach that has been instrumental in getting this team to gel and stay focused, all season long. They are a deep, well balanced team with any of 3-4 players able to burn you, on any given night. They are outstanding on defense. Weber will be coaching against a coach that has a lot of experience playing in Final Fours, Rick Pitino. Look for an outstanding game.
The second game will match North Carolina against Michigan State. Roy Williams has revived a Tar Heel team that sunk to the depths of mediocrity, something that severely agitated people in Chapel Hill. Now that they are back under the guidance of the former Kansas coach, the team has lived up to its early season expectations. They are a solid basketball team.
Michigan State was not heralded as a possible championship contender early on. But as usual, Tom Izzo has them in true Tom Izzo form. They are clicking at the right time, even though they were much underrated and overshadowed by Illinois in the Big Ten. The Big Ten was not supposed to be as strong this year according to the NCAA B-Ball punditry elites. But after eliminating Duke, heads have turned and the MSU bandwagons are full. They have momentum, confidence, and talent.
All four teams play well as a team, play outstanding defense, and are well coached. All but three coaches are generally classified as three of the best in the game, with the exception seeming to be headed in that direction. Fans all know Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, and Tom Izzo, very well. But Bruce Weber is an up and comer. He came to the Illini from Southern Illinois University, after a stint as an assistant for Gene Keady at Purdue. He elevated SIU to a team that is expected to make the tournament after contending for (and winning) their conference, every year. Before him, they just hung out and played some games every season, then went home and waited for next year. He now has the Illini regenerated into a powerhouse team that has only lost one game all year.
Predicting a winner will not be easy. This tournament has been the most competitive of any I can remember, the games have been close, and in most cases could have gone either way. Any team that is left can win it all. But to attain glory and honor as a sports pundit, one must go out on a limb. One must demonstrate courage and predict, even at the risk of being dead wrong. Therefore, I predict:
Illinois over Louisville
MSU over NC
Both games will be close.