Schools need strong guard play to make the Final Four, but that alone won’t make a national champion. Once you advance that far into the tournament, everyone has good guards; the advantage of having an exceptional backcourt is neutralized. To become a national champion, the deciding edge has to be found elsewhere on the roster. And often the players who put a college team head and shoulders above the rest are the ones who are literally head and shoulders above the rest.
We are only hours away from the national championship game, and the biggest question is which frontcourt will have the advantage. North Carolina and Villanova have been overwhelming smaller teams all tournament long, but something will have to give tonight.
As dominant as the Villanova big men have been, they haven’t faced anything like the Carolina frontline. Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks were all top-50 recruits coming out of high school and are expected to be NBA draft picks. In their win against Syracuse on Saturday, the Tar Heels sent waves of talented big men at the Orange 2-3 zone. Johnson, Meeks, Hicks, and Joel James made plays in the high post and crashed the offensive glass, overwhelming a shallow and less talented frontline.
Nova’s Daniel Ochefu and Kris Jenkins are fringe NBA prospects at best. But they have proved that they can dominate undersized frontlines by forcing defenses to send double-teams, then promptly kicking the ball out to any one of Villanova’s knockdown shooters. Jenkins and Ochefu will face their greatest test on Monday night.
Roy Williams will have a number of frontcourt combinations tonight, but expect to see Johnson and Hicks the most. That would put his two fastest big men on the floor, force Ochefu to guard on the perimeter, and make Jenkins work hard on the boards.
The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that it tests every part of your team. Villanova has the guards to win it all. Now it’s time for the Wildcats’ big men to step up.
This piece originally appeared in the April 4, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.