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FINAL FOUR IS HALF BIG TEN
CONFERENCE SILENCES
CRITICS WITH SOLID
TOURNAMENT SHOWING

The Final Four is back in America's heartland. So it's appropriate the Midwest's most tradition-laden conference is the talk of the Edward Jones Dome.

The Big East is gone. So is the SEC, the Big 12 and the Pac-10. This is the Big Ten's show.

No. 1 Illinois (36-1) plays Louisville in tonight's first semifinal needing two wins to break the NCAA single-season victory record. Then comes upstart Michigan State (26-6), which has already ousted Duke and Kentucky in this tournament and will try to slay another giant by beating North Carolina in the nightcap.

It's pretty heady stuff for a conference that was criticized most of the season for being too top-heavy. But the Big Ten has proven its mettle in this tournament, leading all leagues by going 11-3 and putting three teams in the Elite Eight (Wisconsin lost to North Carolina in Sunday's Syracuse regional final).

"We're all focused on Michigan State but I'm really so happy for Illinois, too," said State senior forward Alan Anderson. "Not only for their great season but also for them being the top team in our conference. So many people doubted us all year. People said we weren't at all one of the better conferences but what can they say now? We have to be one of the best, if not the best."

Last year, the Big Ten had just three teams in the NCAA field for the first time since 1984 and was done after the Sweet 16, when Illinois fell to Duke. Michigan State, meanwhile, was a first-round loser to Nevada.

"I don't want to say it's revenge, but it's kind of rewarding that we did have a good league, that we had good teams," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "High school coaches, parents of recruits all watch the different (television) networks. If they're pounding us, it sure doesn't help us recruiting."

This weekend sure will. If Illinois and Michigan State survive today, they would stage the first final pitting teams from the same conference since Danny Manning-led Kansas held off Oklahoma in 1988 in an all-Big 8 affair.

In their first Final Four since 1989, the Illini will clearly be the people's choice. Friday's open practices were attended by more than 20,000 fans and the roars were huge from those clad in orange when Illinois took the floor for its 50-minute session. The band even led the crowd in the wave.

Last week, a largely home crowd in suburban Chicago spurred Illinois to make its comeback from a 15-point deficit in the final four minutes to beat Arizona.

"I don't know if we'll be able to quite recreate last weekend," said Illinois center Jack Ingram. "You have to give credit to our fans because they really helped us through a couple tough stretches and really got us over the hump last Saturday. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for our fans. We're just glad they're here."

History is not kind, however, to one-loss teams like Illinois. The last three teams to enter the Final Four with just one defeat -- Duke in 1999, Massachusetts in '96 and UNLV in '87 -- all went home losers, with Duke and UNLV finishing with 37 wins but no championship. The last one-loss team to win the title was North Carolina State in 1974.

"We would be disappointed (to not win the title) but at the same time, we've had an unbelievable journey," Weber said. "It's been spectacular, one that's going to go down in history."

Michigan State, meanwhile, has slipped under the radar as a No. 5 seed. After beating Kentucky on Sunday in Austin, Texas, coach Tom Izzo said he told his team to soak in the moment as they were cutting down the nets. He did something similar here at the end of practice Friday.

"I told them to look around and enjoy the scenery," Izzo said. "Because the next time you're here, it's going to be a little more intense than it is now."

Izzo said he wants his players to enjoy this trip, especially his much-maligned senior class. The five seniors, led by Anderson and guards Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert, have dealt with the burden of trying to follow in the path of former Spartan stars like Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, who helped Izzo get to three straight Final Fours and win the title in 2000.

And the players are cognizant that Izzo could become just the 12th coach in NCAA history to win the title twice.

"Getting this Final Four definitely puts him in elite company," Hill said. "Winning a national championship would put him with a very select few that have won more than one. We know how important that is to him."

The Spartans, however, face a huge challenge in North Carolina, which will be trying to give second-year coach Roy Williams his first championship in his fifth trip to the Final Four.

"There's no question that Roy is molding this North Carolina group into a definite championship team and program," Izzo said. "I'm just going to hope to hold that off one more year."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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