USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken previews the NCAA championship game, which will be a frontcourt-heavy battle between UNC and Gonzaga.
USA TODAY Sports
Back on Selection Sunday, before the official madness began, both North Carolina and Gonzaga weren’t full-on locks as No. 1 seeds like fellow top seeds Villanova and Kansas. Duke and Arizona, two teams with earlier-than-expected NCAA tournament exits, were then in the mix to steal away a top seed.
Here in April, the Tar Heels and ‘Zags — both No. 1 seeds — are the only teams still standing.
While North Carolina is on a revenge quest from last year’s heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the title game, Gonzaga played much better than any team in Saturday’s Final Four games and hardly looks like an underdog (although Las Vegas has UNC as a two-point favorite, just like it was last year against Villanova). Which team has the edge in the national title game (9 p.m. ET, CBS) on Monday? Here’s a look at the key areas.
Frontcourt edge: North Carolina
The teams both have tantalizingly huge frontcourts but play much different than the other. Gonzaga is more finesse and skill — with 7-footer Przemek Karnowski roaming the paint, creating space and showing great vision as a passer when he’s not scoring with a feathery touch. He’s complemented or relieved by freshman 7-footer Zach Collins, a lengthy and versatile big man who was exceptional against South Carolina with six huge blocks and a game-defining three-pointer. He’ll be a top-10 pick in June’s NBA draft because of his upside and blossoming this March. Then 6-9 forward Johnathan Williams is the X-factor for the ‘Zags with his ability to stretch the floor.
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All that said, UNC has the edge here because of the depth of its bigs. Seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are ferocious on the glass and play with a physicality that gives UNC a backbone. Tony Bradley, a freshman, is solid as well to add to the brute force stockpiling. Then Luke Maye, the Tar Heels’ Elite Eight hero, adds depth. The reason UNC is so ridiculously good at rebounding is because of ACC player of the year Justin Jackson and utility man Theo Pinson adding to that effort. Jackson is more of a point-forward but his versatility scoring — whether it be via jump hooks or deep jumpers — gives North Carolina the advantage.
Backcourt edge: Gonzaga
Nigel Williams-Goss played like a man possessed at times against South Carolina, with seemingly all of his 23 points coming during key momentum spurts. That’s the type of impose-your-will grit that coach Mark Few needs in his floor general to cut down the nets Monday. Williams-Goss has nice pieces around him, whether it be Cal transfer Jordan Matthews (10.7 ppg), Josh Perkins (8.2 ppg) or Silas Melson (7.3 ppg) that will all offset UNC’s guard play.
Whether it was due to injury or not, Joel Berry II, who shot 2-for-14 from the floor against Oregon, was not on his A-game. And he’ll need to be against the ‘Zags. If he can get reinforcement from role players Kenny Williams and Nate Britt, that’ll help. But coach Roy Williams knows he needs his senior to win a championship.
Key player: Zach Collins
Collins had 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks against South Carolina. Another performance like that and the ‘Zags will be tough to stop.
Who wins? Gonzaga
Gonzaga is used to being doubted. The ‘Zags lead the nation in defensive efficiency for a reason and that’s because of their by-committee approach and cohesiveness. It’s one thing to be versatile on offense, but to be versatile on defense — with the ability to switch and avoid mismatches — is a whole different kind of weapon. This team’s offense will need to put it in a position to win, but it was the defense against South Carolina on Saturday and West Virginia in the Sweet 16 that showed what they’re made of. North Carolina will be as driven as ever to avoid heartbreak again, but the Bulldogs have too much swagger and strength.
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