GONZAGA vs. NORTH CAROLINA
For the third straight season, the championship will be decided by no lower than a two-seed. Last year, Villanova was the only two-seed to make the final game in the last three years (2015 involved one seeds Duke and Wisconsin). What we lose in Cinderella intrigue is made up by arguably the two best teams in the country. North Carolina survived what has been called one of the best conferences in college basketball history, emerging from a deep ACC that sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament (but only one to the Sweet 16). Meanwhile, Gonzaga crushed their non-conference slate before rolling through the WCC with just one loss. Even the tournament runs have been different. North Carolina beat the chalk in the East (the 16, eight, four, and two seeds) before ousting Oregon in the Final Four. Gonzaga only played one team seeded lower than seventh. Both teams feature size and balance.
No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs
It would be easy to look at the Gonzaga roster and notice how many big players the team has and figure that Gonzagaís strength would be its frontcourt, but that would overlook the teamís balance. The team has survived the travails of the NCAA tournament -- including two of the best defensive teams in the land with West Virginia and South Carolina -- by not having any particular weaknesses. Nigel Williams-Goss leads the offense, but he does not dominate the ball. Jordan Mathews, Silas Melson, and Josh Perkins provide ball handling and 3-point support. The frontcourt also runs four-deep with Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins sharing the pivot, complemented by 6-foot-9 Johnathan Williams and 6-10 freshman Killian Tillie. A team wins 37 games by being able to adapt to whatever the opponent throws at them.
Among the eight players in the Gonzaga rotation, there are four players who are 6-9 or taller and four players who are 6-4 or shorter. There are no clear wings. Against South Carolina, Williams was able to provide excellent defense against Sindarius Thornwell. The Missouri transfer is athletic to keep up with smaller players and his length provides problems. The guards can also defend bigger players, but the lack of ďmiddleĒ sized players could be an issue against Tar Heels such as Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, who may be too big for the Gonzaga guards and too quick for the majority of the Bulldog frontcourt players.
By coming out of the WCC and not having to play any top three seeds, the perception of the Bulldogs is that they do not completely deserve to be in the championship game. This is nonsense. Unlike past Zag teams, this yearís edition simply crushed its opponents and led the nation with a 21.8 average scoring margin. Gonzaga has added a pair of blowout wins in the Big Dance by crushing both South Dakota State and Xavier. Coach Bob Huggins and his disciple Frank Martin led West Virginia and South Carolina with excellent defenses and Gonzaga did not blink. Donít let that mid-major conference and opponent talk fool you: Gonzaga deserves to be here.
Gonzaga Will Win If:
it sinks its normal complement of 3-pointers. It may be instructive to look at the Bulldogsí lone loss. Against BYU on Feb. 26, Gonzaga only converted 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) of its long-range shots and missed 13 free throws. Like North Carolina, BYU featured enough size to counter the Gonzaga frontcourt, but it was the inability to loosen the Cougar defense that did the Zags in. If players like Mathews and Melson, who combined to hit 39 percent of their 3-pointers, can sink at least six trifectas (like they did against the Gamecocks), Gonzaga will have a much easier time on offense.
Both teams reached the finals without meeting a team that could match their size. North Carolina has longer wings, but will not be able to bully the Bulldogs in the paint. As long as the injuries sustained by Karnowski (eye) and Williams-Goss (ankle) do not impede their play in the championship game, I think Gonzaga will win. I doubted the Bulldogs coming into the tournament, but they have proved to be no outside power conference fluke. They were able to outlast the two best defensive teams and will not face such resistance against the Tar Heels. The Final Four game were decided by a combined five points, which hopefully sets the stage for another classic championship game. We have not had a NCAA championship decided by more than eight points since 2011 (when Butler could barely make any basket on their way to 41 points in the loss to Connecticut). Gonzaga will win by three points and Nigel Williams-Goss will take home the Most Outstanding Player trophy.
No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels
As Iíve been saying all throughout this tournament series, North Carolinaís rebounding ability gives them an edge against almost any opponent. Gonzaga has an extremely talented frontcourt in its own right with Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, but Iím not so sure the Bulldogs have faced the caliber of bigs that the Heels have. To be fair, Oregon went toe-to-toe with the Heels on the glass Saturday and matched them rebound for rebound at 43 and nearly came away with the victory. Still, if North Carolina is on its game on the boards, itís going to be problematic for the ĎZags. Although Isaiah Hicks has underperformed of late (6 Pts, 3 Reb in last two games), Kennedy Meeks has been a man possessed with 32 points and 31 boards over his last two outings. How Gonzaga tries to contain Meeks will be one of the most compelling storylines of Mondayís showdown.
Offensive production from the backcourt. When North Carolina is at its best, itís capable of dominating teams not only on the interior, but also with elite guard play. That simply hasnít been the case this tournament. Joel Berry has averaged 34.3 minutes per game over his last four outings despite playing on two injured ankles, but his offensive capabilities have been completely sapped. Heís just 6-of-26 from the floor and 2-of-13 from 3-point range in his last two games (read: since suffering his second ankle injury of the tournament against Kentucky). Thatís what most would refer to as a problem. I have no doubt that Berry is going to go all out in his final collegiate game Monday, but Iím worried that the adage of ďWhere thereís a will, thereís a wayĒ wonít get it done here. Also, Theo Pinson may be an elite perimeter defender, which will be vital to slowing down the Zagsí 3-point barrage, but he canít be relied upon to chip in much offensively. Nate Britt is also a fine guard off the bench in his own right, but heís not a threat to light up the scoreboard. North Carolina got by with just 24 combined points from that trio Saturday, but Iím not convinced the Heels can come out on top with that level of production from Berry, Britt,and Pinson on Monday.
This is a team that has been on a mission to get back to this stage since Kris Jenkinsí legendary game-winner went through the bottom of the net last April. The nucleus is largely intact and Joel Berry has taken the reins from Marcus Paige as the leader on the court. The Heels are an experienced and battle tested group, ranking 12th in the nation by Ken Pomeroyís minutes continuity metric. Whatís more, North Carolina has one of the all-time great coaches at the helm. Roy Williams, a literal duck master
, has been to the Final Four a whopping nine times in his career. Mark Few is obviously an excellent coach and is among the current elite, but Williamsí track record in games like this could come into play late in the game if this oneís close. The Heels have the experience, coaching, and that championship air about them that will make them undoubtedly the toughest test the Zags have faced this season.
North Carolina will win if:
It can keep Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews in check. As you can probably guess at this point, I give North Carolinaís frontcourt the edge in any matchup, but its backcourt issues could be its downfall. Weíve already covered Berry, Britt, and Pinsonís offensive woes, so weíre going to focus on their defense here. I highlighted Pinsonís defensive prowess in this space last week, and itíll be one of the key factors again Monday. Williams-Goss is Mr. Everything for the Zags, leading the team in both points (16.9) and assists (4.7). Heís had an unbelievable season and is arguably the biggest reason why the Zags have gotten this far. Yes, he is reportedly dealing with a sore ankle, but the adrenaline thatíll kick in once we hit tipoff could very well make that a non-story very quickly. Pinson and Co. will have their hands full trying to slow him down, but it wonít just be about limiting about his scoring; North Carolina has to disrupt Williams-Gossí ability to create and distribute the ball to the Zagsí bigs. If the Heels can keep Williams-Goss off balance Monday, they should end up laying claim to the schoolís sixth national title.
Iíve been convinced that North Carolina is the best team in the nation since February and truly believe that the Tar Heels have the necessary components to get retribution for last seasonís tragic ending. Iím also convinced that UNC hasnít played its best game of the tournament yet. Sloppy play led to some pretty uncomfortable late-game situations against Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oregon. It speaks to North Carolinaís quality across the board that itís made it this far despite not playing up to its potential. If youíre Gonzaga, that has to be in the back of your mind. If North Carolina plays up to its standard, they can win this one comfortably. In the end, North Carolinaís combo of Meeks, Hicks, and Tony Bradley should be able to give Karnowski and Collins problems that theyíre not necessarily accustomed to. Yes, North Carolina will need its guards to play better and itíll need Justin Jackson to lead the way offensively, but Iím convinced that all of those factors will come together and help lead the Heels to the title. Itís worth mentioning that KenPom gives North Carolina just a 37 percent chance of winning, and his projections have been bullish on the Bulldogs throughout the tournament. Itís certainly possible that Gonzagaís depth and balance ultimately proves to be too much for the Heels, but Iíll give North Carolina the edge thanks to coaching, experience, and overall talent level.