Gonzaga and North Carolina did all that they could to lose their respective Final Four games on Saturday, as the Zags let South Carolina go on a 16–0 second-half run before prevailing 77–73 while the Tar Heels made their final field goal in a 77–76 win over Oregon with 5:54 remaining on the clock. In the end, though, the better teams emerged in both games, setting up a national championship that has the makings of an all-time classic. Since at least January, it’s felt like everyone who follows college basketball closely has said that either Gonzaga or North Carolina is the best team in the country, making this matchup as satisfying as any for which we could have asked (other than maybe Duke–North Carolina, of course). We’re getting the program full of American-born players who never transfer against the program whose roster is almost entirely composed of foreigners and transfers. It’s East Coast versus West Coast, and the Appalachian Mountains versus the Rockies. It’s blue blood versus new blood (or, alternately: Few blood). It’s nonexistent classes versus nonexistent football team, Crying Jordan versus Crying Morrison.
Unlike Saturday’s Final Four matchups, which featured teams with contrasting philosophies and skill sets, Monday’s national championship will pit two squads with similar personnel and styles of play. Both have an embarrassment of frontcourt riches (anchored by barrel-chested men with sloppy beards); both have great point guards; both have lockdown defenders; both have depth; both rely heavily on juniors and seniors; and both like to push tempo.
However, there are a handful of advantages Gonzaga and North Carolina will enjoy in this game, and, in my expert opinion, the crowning of the 2017 national champion will come down to which team can utilize theirs the most. (Oh, and which team can make shots. That’s important, too.)
Here are the three things that should make fans of each team confident heading into Monday night.
1. Nigel Williams-Goss
If you’re trying to make sense of what separates this Gonzaga team from all of the ones that came up short in NCAA tournaments past, Williams-Goss is the logical place to start. He’s been one of the five best point guards in the nation all season, and he’s rediscovered his magic after an unusually bad showing against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, highlighted by his 23-point, six-assist, five-rebound performance against one of the best defenses in America on Saturday. I’ve long believed that a team requires a great defense and an elite guard (who preferably runs the point) to win a national title, and while North Carolina meets both of those qualifications, the Zags meet them to an even higher degree, as they boast the best defense in college basketball and an otherworldly talent in Williams-Goss.
Speaking of North Carolina’s point guard, it’s obvious that Joel Berry II’s ankles aren’t 100 percent, which probably doesn’t matter as it pertains to the Tar Heels defense since Theo Pinson likely would have been assigned to Williams-Goss anyway. But Williams-Goss’s impact goes well beyond scoring points, and UNC head coach Roy Williams will have no control over what Gonzaga decides to do defensively. So while Carolina’s defense might have an answer for Williams-Goss, the Heels offense could be in trouble if he swallows up a hobbling Berry on the other end of the floor.
2. Big Men Who Make Post Moves
North Carolina plays four big men who are each capable of pouring in points in a hurry, so I don’t mean to suggest that Gonzaga’s defense should let Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks establish position on the low block all night. It’s just that most of the Tar Heels’ frontcourt points are scored in transition, via dump-off passes from driving guards, or on offensive rebound putbacks. And that’s exactly what Carolina’s system asks of its big men.
But Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins (and even Johnathan Williams at times) give Gonzaga’s half-court offense a kind of balance that the Heels lack. More importantly, they give the Zags an out if Pinson and Justin Jackson put the clamps on Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews. Pinson and Jackson have become lockdown defenders for the Heels (more on this later), especially in Carolina’s last two games against Kentucky and Oregon. But the common denominator for the Wildcats and the Ducks was their absence of a big man who could consistently go one-on-one in the post to help alleviate the fact that Jackson and Pinson were erasing their two best guards. Gonzaga has multiple big men who thrive in post, which will force Roy Williams to make some decisions that go beyond telling his two best defenders to simply shut down the guys they’re guarding.
3. 3-Point Shooting
I’m not saying North Carolina can’t make 3s. I’m just saying that the Heels have so many bad shooters that Justin Jackson’s transformation into a knockdown 3-point shooter has become their story of the season even though he’s hitting only 38.2 percent from deep. And sure, Jackson can get red hot (he was in the neighborhood against Oregon) and Carolina has plenty of other guys — Berry, Nate Britt, Luke Maye — who are threats from long range. Sometimes that’s all it takes to keep a defense off balance.
Then again, at a certain point, telling the defense, “I could totally make this if I wanted” stops mattering as much as making the shots. (Remember: Making shots is important.) And Gonzaga doesn’t just have a lot of guys who can make 3s if they’re open. It has guys — Mathews, Josh Perkins, and Silas Melson — who actively hunt for 3s every second they’re on the court. That trio doesn’t even have to get hot to beat Carolina. If the Zags can hit the open shots that will come as a result of the Tar Heels keying in on Williams-Goss, Karnowski, Collins, and Williams, they should cut down nets Monday.
North Carolina’s Advantages
1. Justin Jackson on Offense
Gonzaga, like almost every other team that has gone against the ACC Player of the Year this season, has nobody who can guard Jackson. And I don’t just mean that in a hyperbolic way. I mean the Zags literally don’t have anyone on the roster who can physically match up with Jackson, as every perimeter player in Gonzaga’s rotation is either 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, while Jackson is 6-foot-8 and has hit jumpers over shorter defenders all season. Bulldogs head coach Mark Few could try to put Johnathan Williams, who is 6-foot-9 and has decent foot speed, on Jackson, but that would necessitate him playing a lineup that has Williams, Karnowski (who would have to guard Meeks), and Collins (who would have to guard Hicks) all on the floor at the same time, which would lead to a cluttered mess in the paint on offense.
That virtually every one of North Carolina’s opponents has run into this exact problem explains why the Heels are in position to win their sixth national title in program history. The Zags’ options are to fundamentally change their approach to basketball (which seems drastic for a team that is 37–1) or to just accept the fact that Jackson is going to kill them.
2. Jackson and Theo Pinson on Defense
As great as Jackson has been offensively, his presence on the defensive end is what’s made the difference for Carolina, especially in the last two games. Jackson almost single-handedly took Malik Monk, Kentucky’s leading scorer who dropped 47 on the Heels in December, out of their matchup in the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey, Oregon’s two leading scorers, went a combined 5-of-22 on Saturday with Jackson and Pinson draped all over them. Whereas Gonzaga plays great all-around team defense, Carolina can sic a couple of long-armed athletes on its opponent’s two best perimeter weapons and completely take them out of the game. That’s such a ridiculous advantage that it borders on unfair.
As I mentioned earlier, though, I’d caution against assuming that this will work against Gonzaga, whose offense is more balanced than Kentucky’s and Oregon’s were. If I were Roy Williams, I’d still tell Jackson and Pinson to try to shut down Williams-Goss and Mathews, but I’d also make clear that Jackson and Pinson have to help off their assignments more than they have in recent games. Gonzaga has enough weapons to beat the Tar Heels even if Williams-Goss and Mathews don’t score much.
3. THEY WANT IT MORE
Isn’t it amazing how every team that plays North Carolina goes into the game knowing that the Heels are going to crash the glass for 40 minutes, yet UNC still finds a way to dominate the offensive boards? Imagine a boxer telling his opponent that he’s going to throw exclusively right hooks for an entire match and then beating the hell out of that opponent by throwing only right hooks. If it happens once, you might wonder how the opponent could be so stupid. But what if it happens every time that boxer fights? At what point do you stop blaming the opponent and just applaud the boxer for being a goddamn magician?
Gonzaga knows exactly what it has to do to beat North Carolina: Karnowski, Collins, and Williams have to block out on every shot (including free throws!) for the entirety of the game. But knowing that and actually doing it are completely different beasts. The only way to know what you’re up against when it comes to North Carolina’s rebounding prowess is to experience it firsthand; by then, it’s often too late.
Along with Jackson being a matchup nightmare, this is an advantage that Carolina knows it will have every game. So while Gonzaga has the size to hang with the Heels, there’s a chance that size could give it a false sense of security, a possibility that would worry me if I were a Zags fan. Size alone isn’t what makes the Heels so dominant on the glass. It’s their size, tenacity, understanding of angles, timing, and all sorts of other stuff (like assuming their teammates are going to miss every jump shot they take, because chances are that they will).
Oh, and speaking of wanting it more, don’t forget that UNC lost to Villanova on a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater in last year’s national championship, which apparently matters this year for some reason. I guess the rationale is that Gonzaga wants to win a national title very badly, but since Carolina is motivated to avenge what happened a season ago, the Heels want to win a title very VERY badly? I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that the 2017 national championship will come down to who makes shots and who wants it more, and right now I give the shot-making edge to Gonzaga and the wanting-it-more edge to Carolina. May the best team win!