04/04/2005 12:00AM

Final Four down to Illinois vs. North Carolina


LAS VEGAS - The Final Four is down to the Terrific Two as Illinois and North Carolina, the No. 1 and 2 ranked teams most of the season, won in blowouts Saturday night.

Illinois beat Louisville 72-57 to easily cover the 3 1/2-point spread, and the 129 points were well under the closing total of 145 1/2.

North Carolina blew open a close game in the second half to rout Michigan St. 87-71 to easily cover the 5-point spread, but the total landed right on the closing number of 158 at the Stardust here in Vegas. A few books were at 158 1/2 or 159 with the Palms at 159 1/2.

I split my selections as I had Louisville and North Carolina, making my bankroll plays 14-13-1 (52 percent) for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). My overall selections on all tourney games stands at 33-28-2 (54 percent).

So, Monday night's title game will determine if I make an overall profit or not.

9:15 p.m. at St. Louis

This line opened at North Carolina -2 1/ 2 after Saturday night's semifinals, but has been bet to 2 at most sports books both here in Vegas and offshore, though some books were still dealing 2 1/ 2 as of noon Monday. The money appears to be on the right side for this title tilt. Some bettors might be just taking the points because the two teams are that even and any points seems like an edge. Others might be betting Illinois because the Illini will have as much of a home-court advantage as one can expect from a neutral site. But the reason I'm on Illinois goes to the old axiom: defense wins championships. Both teams are very athletic, and while North Carolina may have an edge in individual talent, the Illini play better as a team and can be counted on to make more stops on defense. When it comes down to crunch time - and it's not likely to be a blowout either way - I want the team that is more likely to come up with a defensive stand. And the home crowd doesn't hurt.

PLAY: Illinois for 1 unit.