Jawad Williams, North Carolina 20 points (9-13 FG, 2-5 3P), 8 rebounds
Williams came back to life tonight for the Tarheels, just when his team needed him the most. His hip flexor injury seems to be a thing of the past, as he was moving great, finishing alleyoops, rebounding and defending well, blocking shots and hustling all over the floor for the entire game. He got going early and often, with 10 points in the first 13 minutes that single-handedly kept his team in the game in the 1st half until the rest of his teammates got going in the 2nd. He was simply a man possessed on both ends of the floor, looking extremely confident and aggressive and scoring from all over the floor. Just a great game from North Carolina's senior, and at the best time possible as far as his team and NBA draft stock are concerned. If Jawad wants to continue to help himself out and show that this was not a fluke, a good game against Illinois will go a long ways. His height advantage and versatility on offense can be great tools for the Tarheels to exploit.
Ellis Myles, Louisville 17 points (8-12 FG, 1-1 FT) 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals
A tough loss for the senior, but he'll be the last one people will be pointing fingers at as he did everything humanly possible to keep his team in the game. He was easily the best player on the floor in the 1st half on either team; scoring in the paint using his outstanding footwork, slashing to the basket with a terrific handle, twice taking the ball the entire length of the floor, making terrific passes out of the high post, rebounding extremely well, and just hustling like crazy. His combination of strength, smarts, superb skill, and passing ability may remind some of a young Anthony Mason, but it's unclear whether that will be enough to get him a shot in the NBA as he does not possess ideal size or athletic ability. He'll get a shot to impress the scouts next week in Portsmouth.
Raymond Felton, North Carolina 16 points (6-12 FG, 2-6 3P), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 turnovers
It was a tale of two halves for Raymond Felton tonight, once again showing exactly how important he is to this North Carolina squad. In the first half, Felton clearly came out a little too anxious. He got ahead of himself a number of times by penetrating too deep into the lane at 100 miles an hour and turning the ball over, but also made some incredible assists that showed off his fantastic court vision and brilliant passing skills. North Carolina's strategy was to push, push, push and push the ball some more and while it resulted in some great sequences and easy looks for his teammates (especially McCants), it also resulted in 4 early turnovers for Felton. North Carolina went to the half down by 5, but were quickly back on top with Felton putting on one of the most impressive performances by a PG we've seen in this tournament in the first 10 minutes of the 2nd half. The incredibly quick and savvy playmaker ran Roy Williams' offense to perfection, doing a terrific job of utilizing all the weapons in North Carolina's arsenal, especially in the lane, and knocking down his own shots as well. It got to the point that the game was practically over with 10 minutes to go, representing a full 180 for a twenty point turnaround. His matchup with Deron Williams on Monday should be one of the best PG matchups we've seen all season long, and might go a long way in deciding which one will be picked first in this upcoming draft.
Sean May, North Carolina 22 points (9-18 FG), 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 block
May was looking like a surefire bet to lead off the stock down section of this article with the way he played in the 1st half. He was dominated inside the paint by the much bigger Paul Davis, being out-hustled on the glass, getting beat down the floor numerous times, having a very tough time scoring inside (finishing the half 2/8 from the field), and not being able to stop Davis from scoring right over the top of him. That was all over at the end first half, though, as he came out on fire in the 2nd, taking over the game offensively for the Heels as they completely dominated the Spartans and beat them to a pulp in the first ten minutes. May went 7/10 from the field in the 2nd, finishing with 18 points for the half and playing terrific defense inside the paint as well. His matchup with Roger Powell and James Augustine could be the deciding factor in who wins the game on Monday. North Carolina will need a similar performance like he had in the 2nd half to have a good shot at coming away with the title. The fact that May looked winded towards the end of the 1st is not a good sign for Roy Williams and the Heels. This game is probably going to be an up and down affair and May will have to pace himself well to stay in the game physically. He's probably been the best player in the country over the past month or so, certainly when talking about big men, and will probably be the one named MOP if the Tarheels come away with the national championship on Monday, granted he has a good game.
Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Illinois
The three Illini guards have been spectacular all tournament long, but they have been spectacular together. All three had their rough games, but at least one of the trio stepped up in every game, and their willingness to defer to the one with the hot hand is a major reason why Bruce Weber's group finds themselves in the championship. Against Louisville, the ability for these guards to play as a trio was never more evident. Brown and Williams weren't hitting from the outside, but Head finally broke out of a tourney-long slump and went six for nine from behind the arc. The trio handled Louisville's vaunted pressure defense in nearly flawless fashion, combining for 19 assists and committing just 5 turnovers. While this tourney has given us numerous instances of teams collapsing under intense full court pressure in late games, Deron Williams directed Illinois' press break masterfully, and committed just one turnover against the 'Ville's pressure down the stretch.
This article couldn't be complete without mention of Deron Williams' lock down defensive performance on Francisco Garcia, who shot just 2-10 from the floor and scored just 4 points.
When analyzing the trio's performance over the course of the tourney, Williams is probably the only one who has seen his stock move significantly in either direction. He had two of the toughest defensive assignments of the entire tourney when he went toe-to-toe against Salim Stoudamire and Francisco Garcia, and the results were disastrous for the opposition. While Williams wasn't always the most explosive offensive player this March, he did show that he can hack it defensively against the best. His heroics in the closing minutes against Arizona will be etched in the mind of the nation for years to come.
Looking to the championship game, Williams will again be matched up against a premier guard. If he ends up guarding Felton, we may be able to definitively answer any lingering questions about his quickness. If it's McCants, he will have the opportunity to shut down another premier NCAA scorer. Regardless of his performance on Monday night, a top 10 selection in the upcoming draft is looking more and more likely for Deron Williams.
Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown, Michigan State
Michigan State's duo of athletic wings really raised their play in this tourney, and tonight they really put a scare in the Tar Heels early, matching North Carolina at their own game. Brown, who has been oft maligned for being nothing but a dunker, showed the potential to be something more than that tonight. He had a nice slashing lay-in early in the first half, and back-to-back three pointers late in the half really swung the momentum Michigan State's way. Ager was phenomenal all night long, often leading the break or blowing by outmatched Tar Heel defenders on the wing. It seemed like Ager was the one in attack mode for much of the night, and his ten for ten performance at the line attests to that. While his shooting wasn't there tonight, Ager's most impressive moment may have been on a missed attempt. Streaking to the basket, Ager took Drew Neitzel's errant alleyoop pass and nearly put it down, looking like he nearly jumped too high on the exchange. Maurice Ager averaged 18 points per game for the tourney, and has to be considered one of the biggest risers in terms of NBA stock in the entire tourney.
Barring any unforeseen early declarations, Brown and Ager will both be back next season. Many have speculated that the Spartan guards' inconsistent play had a lot to do with the number of players that needed shots, and an inability for any one player to get in a much of a rhythm. Next year this won't be the case, as Tom Izzo loses three guards to graduation, and Ager/Brown will be getting full time minutes on the wings. Brown will need to show that he can handle the ball at least a little, while Ager simply needs to build on a very solid junior season. He has shown a very complete scoring game, and has that world class athleticism that NBA scouts drool over. Look for both of Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown to significantly improve their numbers, and for Ager to put himself in a position to be drafted in the first round in 2006.
Rashad McCants, North Carolina 17 points (7-11 FG, 2-3 3P), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 turnovers
Offensively, McCants was his usual self tonight; hitting the open threes that were created for him, backing his man down and scoring a little bit in the paint, finishing a gorgeous alleyoop pass by Raymond Felton, and getting easy baskets in transition. He did not force the issue that much today, holding himself back numerous times from taking bad shots and kicking it back out to his PG. His beautiful alleyoop lob to Marvin Williams (contrary to what you may think, he actually DID "participate" in this game) for a thunderous transition dunk was absolutely fantastic. In terms of NBA skills, he did not show much to lead us to believe that things will be as easy for him when it comes to scoring as they are in college with his below average size and ball-handling ability, though. He had a very hard time creating his own shot offensively against Michigan State's extremely athletic guards, coming up with two turnovers and one bad miss on forced plays every time he tried to put the ball on the floor tonight. Defensively, it was the same old story for McCants. He was burned numerous times by both Brown and Ager, being unable to keep up with them laterally and getting beat down the floor numerous times. His hustle and overall effort still leaves a lot to be desired, as he refuses to put himself in harms way to come up with a loose ball, and gets constantly out-muscled when fighting for rebounds. McCants was eventually benched for a couple of minutes by Roy Williams at the end of the first half for his poor effort, despite the fact that he could have used his spot up shooting ability to come up with a good shot before time expired. Being a defensive liability once again will simply not cut it on Monday for McCants. Regardless of who he is matched up with (most likely Luther Head I would assume) he'll have to be in top form and giving maximum effort for once. Considering the magnitude of the game, it's simply unfathomable that McCants won't leave it all out on the floor for the last game of the season and possibly his NCAA career.
Paul Davis, Michigan State 14 points (6-16 FG), 15 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 turnovers
Another much-maligned underachiever from Tom Izzo's squad, Davis has really redeemed himself this March with some inspired play. While Sean May took over in the second half, Davis' length and newfound intensity really bothered UNC's star big man in the first. He finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds, his fourth straight double-double in this tournament. Davis continues to show quite a bit of skill in the mid-post area, and while he struggles to create "high percentage" interior chances for himself, he does have a beautiful midrange jumper. The difference in this tournament is that he got to loose balls, converted timely offensive rebound putbacks, and was able to stay on the floor during crucial moments. There is definitely a certain amount of fire to Davis that we didn't know existed before this March. While it's hard to project Paul Davis as a star in the NBA, he has the size and skill to be effective at the next level. We have seen stretches of strong play in the past with Davis, so it's important that he carries this strong stretch over into next season. If he can wrap up his college career with an all-conference type of season, he will be sitting pretty in the middle of the first round for 2006.
Francisco Garcia, Louisville 4 points (2-10 FG, 0-4 3P) 2 assists, 1 rebound, 1 turnover
After such a fantastic tournament, Garcia may have earned himself some leeway to have an off night, but did he burn that already by fouling out for the final 9 minutes in the Elite Eight? What happened in this game was much more then just an off night this time, and might just go down as one of the biggest disappearing acts in the history of the Final Four. Garcia was simply invisible for most of his time on the floor, not looking for his shot one bit, not taking any responsibility on himself when his team needed him the most, playing passively and downright hiding at times, and either passing the ball almost as soon as he got it or heaving up a brick every time down the floor. Part of that can be credited to Deron Williams' terrific defense, and generally the excellent job that Illinois did as a team defensively, but most of the blame has to fall squarely on Garcia's shoulders for making things so easy for the Illini. He started off the game fairly well, getting to the basket a couple of times and missing some tough shots, going 1/8 in the first half, but only taking two shots in the entire 2nd half when his team needed him the most. What is most puzzling about the way he played is that Garcia is known (and for good reason) as one of the biggest warriors in college basketball, and an extremely clutch player, so you've got to wonder if there was something else going on tonight (besides the piss poor dome excuse). He still most likely secured himself a place in the first round of the NBA draft with his overall body of work in the tournament and the regular season, but the questions that were raised about him before the tournament regarding his lack of athletic ability, skinny frame and advanced age might have to be raised again following this lackluster ending to his NCAA career. Garcia will now have to work that much harder to end up with a good spot in the NBA draft when he makes the rounds in NBA workouts this summer. Pitino doesn't sound as confident as he did all season in his favorite player's draft stock anymore, taking things slowly as he advises sounds like the right move.
Alan Anderson, Michigan State 0 points (0-4 FG), 4 rebounds, 1 steal
A player that we have been keeping close tabs on this March is MSU senior Alan Anderson. After a so-so 3 1/2 seasons in East Lansing, Anderson really picked up his game down the stretch. Tom Izzo has used Anderson as anything from a point guard to a power forward, and as his production rose, so did the prospects of hearing his name called on draft night. However, his tournament has been a bit underwhelming. As Brown, Ager, and Davis took over, Anderson took a back seat to his underclassmen teammates. Tonight, Anderson was all but invisible, going 0-4 from the floor and not scoring in 20 minutes. Furthermore, he was burned by his defensive assignment, Jawad Williams, in the first half. Alan Anderson was looking like a prospect that was going to gain quite a bit of momentum in this tournament, and that simply didn't happen. Next up for Anderson is Portsmouth, even though he doesn't really have the type of game that will stand out in an individual setting.