Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Blue Skies! North Carolina Earns Redemption, 6th National Championship

College Hoops Player of the Day for Monday, April 3, 2017

North Carolina 71 Gonzaga 66

It wasn't pretty, but after 40 minutes of helter-skelter basketball, 44 fouls, 52 free throws, and 76 missed shots from the field, the North Carolina Tar Heels did what they came to do: redeem themselves for last year's last-second loss in the championship game to Villanova.

For some time during what had to be one of the more intense physical and defensive struggles of Final Four fare ever, there was doubt that North Carolina would win their sixth national championship. Gonzaga was tough, determined, and equally aware of the task at hand. In the end the game was decided by the play of a couple of upperclassmen - senior forward Isaiah Hicks and junior guard Joel Berry II - turning adversity into opportunity late in the second half that led the Tar Heels to basketball's promised land with a 71-65 triumph and a National Championship trophy.

In the first half, while North Carolina was shooting at a sub-30% rate, Gonzaga forged as much as a seven-point lead, which turned out to be the largest of the contest. When the teams broke for halftime, the Bulldogs led, 35-32, an advantage that was quickly erased as the Tar Heels went on an 8-0 tear to open the second half. In addition to two Justin Jackson free throws, Berry made a steal on the opening inbound play, tossed in a breakout layup, fed Kennedy Meeks for another score and hit a short jumper with just 2:20 gone in the period.

As had been the case throughout the tournament for the Tar Heels, they could not keep their advantage for long. Over the next minute and nine seconds, the Bulldogs regained the lead, 41-40 on a Zach Collins jumper and subsequent free throw and a three-pointer from Jordan Mathews.

From there until the final two minutes of the game, neither team could consider themselves safe, as the lead changed hands and the scored tied multiple times.

With 1:55 remaining, Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss put the Zags up 65-63, but Jackson tied the game and put the Tar Hells ahead 66-65 with a layup plus one on a foul. Following a Gonzaga timeout, Hicks came up big, hitting a short runner in the lane for a 68-65 edge with 27 seconds left. On Gonzaga's ensuing possession, Kennedy Meeks blocked a shot from Williams Goss and Berry recovered the ball, feeding a streaking Justin Jackson for an emphatic slam dunk which sealed the deal. Berry, who had 21 points and was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, capped off his 22-point night with a final free throw.

Berry made four three-pointers, had three rebounds, a steal, and six assists.

The victory pushed the North Carolina basketball program into even more elite status. It's six national championships are the third most by any school, behind UCLA's 11 and 8 by Kentucky. The Tar Heels broke a tie with Duke and Indiana, both claiming five national titles.

Carolina head coach Roy Williams upped his status as well, winning his third national championship, all with the Tar Heels. Adding to his wins in 2005 and 2009, Williams joins Jim Calhoun (Connecticut) and Bobby Knight (Indiana). Ahead of them are Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Kansas' Adolph Rupp with four. UCLA's legendary "Wizard of Westwood," John Wooden, led the Bruins to 10 national titles over a 12-year span.

Thus, the 2016-17 men's college basketball season comes to an abrupt close. College Basketball Daily will return again this fall to bring readers more coverage of the great sport and of course, the player of the day throughout the 2017-18 season.

Until then, keep your laces loose and practice your free throws,

Fearless Rick,

NCAA Tournament Conference Scoreboard
FINAL: Through Monday (4/3) Games
Conference (# of teams) Record Winners (# of Wins)
ACC (9) 11-8 Notre Dame (1), Florida St. (1), Virginia (1), Louisville (1), Duke (1), North Carolina (6)
Big East (7) 6-7 Villanova (1), Butler (2), Xavier (3)
Big Ten (7) 8-7 Purdue (2), Wisconsin (2), Northwestern (1), Michigan (2), Michigan State (1)
Big 12 (6) 9-6 Kansas State (1), West Virginia (2), Iowa St. (1), Kansas (3), Baylor (2)
SEC (5) 11-5* Florida (3), Arkansas (1), Kentucky (3), South Carolina (4)
PAC 12 (4) 10-4 USC (2), Arizona (2), Oregon (4), UCLA (2)
Atlantic 10 (3) 1-3 Rhode Island (1)
American (2) 1-2 Cincinnati (1)
West Coast (2) 6-2 Gonzaga (5), St. Mary's (1)
All Others (23) (4-23) Mt. St. Mary's (1), UC Davis (1), Middle Tennessee (1), Wichita State (1)

*One SEC loss and one SEC win occurred in the East Regional Final, South Carolina 77, Florida 70

Monday, April 03, 2017

NCAA Tournament Final Preview: Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. North Carolina Tar Heels

Bulldogs vs. Tar Heels For All The Marbles, 9:20 pm ET, CBS

Is this not how it should be? Number one seed from the West, Gonzaga, meets #1 from the South (should have been East), North Carolina. First-timer vs. thoroughbred, a team that's never been to a Final Four, much less a championship game, will be facing a team that's been to 20 Final Fours and has won the national championship five times (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009). Roy Williams, head coach of North Carolina, is seeking his third national championship, which would tie him with Jim Calhoun and Bobby Knight (John Wooden won 10, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp each won four). Mark Few, who, for 18 years, has labored diligently as the head coach of the Gonzaga Bulldogs - and built an impressive, successful program - has never won a national title.

So, who's got the goods? Spoiler alert: College Basketball Daily isn't making a pick. Since we have no dog in this fight (and we almost never do), there's no point in jading this column into being something it's not. Let's throw out some numbers and observations and enjoy what should be an exceptional exclamation point to another college basketball season.

For those of you with a gambling problem, who just have to make a wager, good luck. North Carolina is a one-point favorite, meaning, as expected, it's just about impossible to predict a winner. The over/under number comes in at a robust 155, seeking a game that ends up something like 80-75, which should be about enough scoring for anybody.

A quick recap of the path to the championship is in order, but one condition sums up why this match-up may be entirely too close to call: the total margin of victory for the five tournament games is North Carolina, 57; Gonzaga, 57. That's right. Both teams have won five games by the same total number of points.

On Saturday, the Tar Heels managed to slip past an aggressive and determined Oregon squad by missing four straight free throws at the end of the game, securing a 77-76 win.

Surely, that was not the Tar Heels' desired strategy, but, as it worked out, the object lesson is that North Carolina led the nation in rebounding during the regular season and, apparently, no team does it better, or, at more opportune times.

For Gonzaga, Saturday afternoon in Phoenix was no vacation. Facing the South Carolina Gamecocks, the #7 seed from the East region, the Bulldogs built a second half, 14-point lead, only to see it evaporate in the span of four minutes, putting the Gamecocks up by two with just over seven minutes to play. Seconds later, Zach Collins notched a three-pointer, Gonzaga began building their lead again and never game it up, eventually coming away with the 77-73 victory.

A few key takeaways from the semi-final games:
  • Both Gonzaga and North Carolina faced teams with solid, if not special defenses, however...
  • North Carolina was outshot by Oregon, 36.8% to 37.9%
  • Gonzaga shot 48.3% to South Carolina's 37.9%
  • Oregon tied North Carolina with 43 rebounds
  • Gonzaga had 41 rebounds; South Carolina, 36
  • Gonzaga hit 9 of 19 three-pointers; North Carolina made 8 of 21 vs. the Ducks
  • North Carolina's bench scored just 9 points; Gonzaga's scored 22
  • Of course, the Tar Heels won by one point; Gonzaga won by four

With those figures in perspective, and, in case you didn't see the games (how could you miss them?), North Carolina didn't pass the eye test. They looked, especially in the first ten minutes of the first half, disorganized, unconnected, and uninspired. They appeared to be playing without any emotion. However, they looked the same way at the end of the game - emotionless - so maybe that's just their look.

But, if you saw both games, the Zags looked much the sharper. Additionally, a couple of key players stood out. For the Tar Heels, Joel Berry II appeared nearly hobbled throughout. There's been much said about his sore ankles, and they showed up in the game against Oregon. Still, Berry played 35 minutes, In that time, he scored 11 points on 2-for-14 shooting. If Berry is actually hurting (and there's nothing to say that he isn't), Theo Pinson, and especially, Nate Britt, are going to get many more minutes.

The other player that one couldn't help but notice was struggling was North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks, who appeared to be completely lost on offense and ineffective on defense. Hicks played 20 minutes, scoring 2 points on 1-for-12 shooting and had a mere three rebounds.

Maybe Hicks just had a bad game, and maybe Berry will feel better before tonight's tip-off. In any case, coach Williams will make an accurate assessment of both situations and make the needed adjustments. So too, Mark Few, a zealot for detail and preparedness.

For Gonzaga, point guard Josh Perkins played 22 minutes and had two points, but, he only hoisted up two shots, both threes and both misses. He had just one assist and fouled out. He was a non-factor, even though he's not generally a key to the Bulldog scoring.

On the other hand, seven-foot freshman Zach Collins had 14 points and 13 rebounds in 23 minutes, really stepping up his game.

North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks scored 25 points and had 13 rebounds. Without him, the Tar Heels would have lost, and lost badly. It's not going to be as easy for Meeks - not that it was against the Ducks - against Gonzaga, in addition to Collins, 7'1" Przemek Karnowski weighs in at 300 pounds. Meeks, however, won't be alone, and he may have the edge. He's no doubt quicker than Karnowski, and, he's stronger than the lanky Collins.

The two players upon whose shoulders victory or defeat will probably land are Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss and Carolina's Justin Jackson. Both led their teams in scoring during the regular season and each is the "go-to" guy in pressure situations. They both played well in the semis and are expected to be at their best in the final.

In the end, there really isn't much separating their last two teams standing, which should make for a thrilling conclusion to the college hoops season.


Sunday, April 02, 2017

Zach Collins Leads Gonzaga Past Gamecocks; Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina Hold Off Oregon

College Hoops Players of the Day for Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gonzaga 77 South Carolina 73

In the first national semi-final on Saturday, the Gonzaga Bulldogs did just enough to defeat a pesky #7 seed from the East Region, South Carolina, 77-73.

Essential to the success of the Bulldogs was the play of freshman forward, Zach Collins, who had possibly the best game of his brief college career, scoring 14 points with 13 rebounds and six blocked shots.

The lanky seven-footer came off the bench for 23 minutes of floor time and made every one of them valuable to the team effort, taking advantage of the smaller Gamecock forwards and defending the paint with his size and agility.

After a back-and-forth first half, Gonzaga finally seized a nine-point lead heading into the break and eventually led by 14 points, though a furious South Carolina spurt brought the Gamecocks all the way back and briefly into the lead at 67-65 with just over seven minutes left to play, but Collins' crucial three-pointer put the Bulldogs back on top and they would not trail the remainder of the game. In the final minutes, the Bulldog defense was too much for South Carolina, holding the Gamecocks to just two points in the final 2:30. When Killian Tillie notched a pair of free throws with 2.2 seconds left, putting the Bulldogs up by four, the celebration began.

Gonzaga's first ever trip to the Final Four will now also include a first ever championship game when they meet the North Carolina Tar Heels Monday night at 9:20 pm ET for the national championship. The top seed from the West, Gonzaga haeds into the game with the best record in the country, 37-1.

North Carolina 77 Oregon 76

North Carolina narrowly escaped an upset at the hands of the Oregon Ducks with one of the strangest final seconds of any game, tournament or otherwise, missing four free throws in the final 5.8 seconds while managing to hold onto a one-point lead, eventually advancing to the National Championship game with a 77-76 victory.

With the score at 77-76, Kennedy Meeks, who led all scorers by tying a career-high 25, stepped to the foul line with 5.8 seconds left, for two shots. Missing them both, an alert and aggressive Theo Pinson knifed in for the rebound, getting it outside to Joel Barry II, who was immediately fouled. Berry, normally a clam, 79% free throw shooter, also mangled both of his freebies, but Meeks grabeed the rebound from between two Oregon players and pitched it outside to Pinson, who took two dribbles before throwing the ball high into the air as time expired.

While the Tar Heels led most of the game, the Ducks would simply not go away, and had a legitimate chance at the win, but the Tar Heels, who led the nation in rebounding, did what they did best at the end, denying the Ducks a final scoring opportunity.

Throughout the game it was Meeks who kept North Carolina motoring toward the victory, finishing with 25 points on an incredible 11-for-13 shooting performance, with 14 rebounds, eight of them on the offensive end.

The Tar Heels meet Gonzaga in the National Championship Monday night. The game will be televised live on CBS with the tip at 9:20 pm ET.

Check College Basketball Daily on Monday morning for a preview of the National Championship match-up.

NCAA Tournament Conference Scoreboard
Through Saturday (4/1) Games
Conference (# of teams) Record Winners (# of Wins)
ACC (9) 10-8 Notre Dame (1), Florida St. (1), Virginia (1), Louisville (1), Duke (1), North Carolina (5)
Big East (7) 6-7 Villanova (1), Butler (2), Xavier (3)
Big Ten (7) 8-7 Purdue (2), Wisconsin (2), Northwestern (1), Michigan (2), Michigan State (1)
Big 12 (6) 9-6 Kansas State (1), West Virginia (2), Iowa St. (1), Kansas (3), Baylor (2)
SEC (5) 11-5* Florida (3), Arkansas (1), Kentucky (3), South Carolina (4)
PAC 12 (4) 10-4 USC (2), Arizona (2), Oregon (4), UCLA (2)
Atlantic 10 (3) 1-3 Rhode Island (1)
American (2) 1-2 Cincinnati (1)
West Coast (2) 6-1 Gonzaga (5), St. Mary's (1)
All Others (23) (4-23) Mt. St. Mary's (1), UC Davis (1), Middle Tennessee (1), Wichita State (1)

*One SEC loss and one SEC win occurred in the East Regional Final, South Carolina 77, Florida 70