USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken previews the NCAA championship game, which will be a frontcourt-heavy battle between UNC and Gonzaga.
USA TODAY Sports
Analyzing the title game matchup between North Carolina and Gonzaga:
Nigel Williams-Goss is capable of being the best player on whatever court he’s playing on. He was, for stretches, in Gonzaga’s Final Four win against South Carolina, and he could be sneakily the most important player on the court Monday night in game expected to be dominated by the big men. That’s especially true because the most important guard for North Carolina — Joel Berry II — is hobbled by a pair of ankle injuries.
Berry played 35 minutes in Saturday’s national semifinal, but didn’t shoot well. Still, his coaches were thrilled he played and didn’t sprain either ankle worse — which isn’t necessarily the most encouraging sign for an impact player. When Berry is out of the game, North Carolina’s offense does not work nearly as well as when he’s in it, as evidenced by a painful loss to Duke in the ACC tournament.
Nate Britt can provide a spark off the bench, but Berry is the straw that stirs this team. If he’s not 100%, the edge clearly goes to the ‘Zags. One X factor here obviously is Justin Jackson, the ACC player of the year, who can take over a game essentially on his own.
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This is a matchup of strength against strength — and it will be the matchup that ultimately determines the outcome of this game. On one side, you’ve got the towering 7-footers of Gonzaga, Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins. On the other side, you’ve got Kennedy Meeks — coming off the best game of his career, 25 points and 14 rebounds to lead North Carolina past Oregon — who is basically an immovable force in the paint.
The edge here goes to the ‘Zags, though, because of the question mark behind Meeks. Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson combined to go 4-for-22 from the field in Saturday’s national semifinal. Tony Bradley and Luke Maye each contributed just two points off the bench. That’s not the kind of production that’s going to be required to keep pace in a game that’s going to be bruising down low.
COACHING: NORTH CAROLINA
This is not to slight Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who is one of the sport’s best coaches and certainly one of its most underrated. But the edge here will go to the coach who has won two national championships and has coached in nine Final Fours — and that is Roy Williams. Williams not only has been here before, but he’s been through a lot off the court since his last title in 2009, too — making this run at a championship maybe even more meaningful than it would have been.
During the last five years, Williams has lost two close friends, including legendary coach Dean Smith, and dealt with a cancer scare as well as bad knees. He’s also been involved in an ongoing NCAA investigation into allegations of academic fraud that have hung over the entire North Carolina athletic department for years — and has cost the Tar Heels some highly touted recruits in the meantime.
Considering all that, it’s no surprise that Williams views both this team and last year’s team as “therapeutic” for him. And that is why, if he has anything to do with it, he’ll make daggum sure he gets them a title.
INTANGIBLES: NORTH CAROLINA
Perhaps we’re making too much of the redemption angle. But there’s no doubt that last year’s heartbreaking loss to Villanova on the iconic Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater has been a motivating factor for this year’s team, which is comprised of a roster very similar to that of last year’s team. That means, well, a lot of these players experienced that gut-wrenching moment, and the shell-shocked locker room that followed.
And, then, they spent an entire offseason seeing highlights of and hearing all about The Shot, a constant reminder of the unfinished business that remains. The regular season was all a preamble to this: The 2017 NCAA tournament, where, if they played well enough, they could get back to the title game with a chance to avenge a loss that’s eaten at them — albeit against a different opponent. Here they are, with that opportunity.
THE PICK: GONZAGA
Do not let anyone fool you: This is not David vs. Goliath. Gonzaga is like a distant relative of David’s, perhaps only connected by marriage on its second cousin’s side. The Bulldogs are not some cute upstart, some overwhelmed underdog. They are — and have been for some time — the best team in the country, according to KenPom’s efficiency ratings.
They’re the best defensive team in the nation, and one of the best offensive teams, too, thanks to their scoring balance (five different players average double-digits) and depth. Consider that the hero of the Final Four — Zach Collins, who could perhaps be one-and-done after a marvelous NCAA tournament run — comes off the bench.
If North Carolina shoots the ball nearly as poorly as it did in its national semifinal game against Oregon, the Bulldogs will cruise to a championship. Even if the Tar Heels play well, we’ll still take the Zags. They have no obvious weakness.
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