The NCAA tournament is known for being wild sometimes. The best team doesn't always win it and the best teams rarely play in the title game.
In 2005, those two teams did.
That Illinois team lost one game all season long, a one-point loss to Ohio State to end the season. They had the three headed guard monster of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. North Carolina lost just three games all year long, including a surprising loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament. They returned the trio of Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants, brought in super freshman Marvin Williams (all four would become lottery picks in the same NBA Draft) and several upperclassmen who saw the tough times in Chapel Hill. The Illini finished No. 1 in the final poll with UNC finishing No. 2.
The Tar Heels road to the title saw them beat Oakland and Iowa State before winning an extremely close battle with Villanova in the Sweet 16. After that, the Heels beat three straight Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois) for the title.
As a UNC fan, I remember that title vividly. Remember, this was just Roy Williams' second season with North Carolina and just three years after the absolutely horrible 8-20 season of 2001-02. Matt Doherty pulled the program down into the ground after Bill Guthridge's two Final Fours in his three seasons. The first half of the decade were tough to be a Tar Heel fan and many choose to forget they ever happened.
The fact they did made the title even sweeter. While "Coach D'oh" was deemed a failure, he did recruit and bring in May, Felton and McCants. Guys like Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott were freshmen on that embarrassing 2002 team. This was a program that rode great success in Dean Smith's 36 years as head coach and Guthridge's short term that fans never tasted how bad it can get or how hard it is to keep.
Let me just say that that wasn't all Doherty's fault. While Bill Guthridge had two Final Four runs in his three seasons, he inherited a Final Four team in his first year (the Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Shammond Williams, Ed Cota team) with guys like Cota, Brandon Haywood, Julius Peppers and a young stud Joseph Forte leading an improbable run to a Final Four in 2000. Still, the talent that was being brought in to Chapel Hill wasn't very good (remember Adam Boone? Scott Morrison?) and Forte bounced after his sophomore season.
The 2005 team will be remembered for bringing Carolina back to the top. I remember watching that game in my Sportz Room. Nervous. I had never watched UNC lose a title game (they did in 1981, but I was a mere 5 years old when that happened). Illinois was tough. Obviously, since they lost just once all year. While UNC was loaded, this was a team that was 8-20 three years ago, a NIT team two years ago and lost in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament the previous season. There wasn't a winning pedigree set yet.
The Heels would take a nice lead, then saw Illinois roar back. UNC held on for the title and I hugged my wife as the confetti fell.
We were back.