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.
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