NCAA title game a study in contrasts
GLENDALE, Ariz.--It's the blue blood vs. the new blood. The contrast in the NCAA Tournament championship game is clear: North Carolina, winners of five titles and appearing in its record 20th Final Four, is in one corner. Gonzaga, in its first Fi...
GLENDALE, Ariz.-It's the blue blood vs. the new blood.
The contrast in the NCAA Tournament championship game is clear: North Carolina, winners of five titles and appearing in its record 20th Final Four, is in one corner. Gonzaga, in its first Final Four after spending almost two decades chugging up the mountaintop, is in the other.
"To be playing in the last game of the year is just crazy cool," said Bulldogs coach Mark Few.
But make no mistake. The programs might hang different kinds of banners in their arenas, but this is a heavyweight matchup all the way. These are two experienced, balanced, No. 1 seeds ready to throw down Monday at 8:20 p.m. from University of Phoenix Stadium.
North Carolina's Roy Williams will be coaching in his 100th NCAA Tournament game and going for his third national title. He has rings from 2005 and 2009, coming up just short of adding the 2016 title to his collection as the Tar Heels lost to Villanova on a last-second shot.
"You know, on game night, kids gotta play. That's the bottom line," Williams said. "I've never won a game from the bench. I may have lost some, but I know I've never won one. We've gotta go out and play and do the best we can."
North Carolina (32-7) won the ACC regular-season title by two games and knocked off a No. 4 seed (Butler), a No. 2 seed (Kentucky) and a No. 3 seed (Oregon on Saturday night) to advance to the title game. The Tar Heels' bona-fides are unquestioned.
Plenty have doubted Gonzaga. The Bulldogs (37-1) have had their doubters because they play in the weaker West Coast Conference, and their last two games in the tournament were against upstarts-11th-seeded Xavier and seventh-seeded South Carolina.
"No one's here by accident," said Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. "I think the respect thing has to go out the window. You have 37 wins in a college season, I mean that's just unbelievable. And to be playing the last game of the season, we have a chance to play for it all. And we're here to win it."
Williams-Goss is the engine of a Gonzaga attack that shoots 50.8 percent from the field, second-best in the country. His 16.9 scoring average leads five Bulldogs in double figures.
Senior center Przemek Karnowski is a load inside at 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds, while freshman 7-footer Zach Collins is a future first-round NBA draft choice. He had 14 points against the Gamecocks, setting career highs with 13 rebounds and six blocked shots.
They will be matched up, in part, against North Carolina's sturdy man in the middle, senior Kennedy Meeks. He is not often called upon to be a leading scorer, but when the Tar Heels went cold against Oregon, Meeks dominated with 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting. He added 14 rebounds, eight on the offensive glass.
North Carolina leads the country in rebounding margin and offensive rebounds.
"I think our main objective every game is to hit teams early in the mouth, whether that's attacking them on the offensive end or playing great defense," Meeks said.
Forward Justin Jackson averages a team-best 18.3 points. Point guard Joel Berry II, averaging 14.5 points per game, has been dealing with two balky ankles. He played 35 minutes Saturday night but was just 2 of 14 from the field.
Can he guard Williams-Goss?
Will the Tar Heels assert their usual dominance in the paint?
Will Jackson go off?
Can Gonzaga 3-point ace Jordan Mathews be a shooting star?
Will the last team standing be blue blood or new blood?
For North Carolina, it's more of the same. For Gonzaga, the peak has never been closer.
"I've had some really, really tough teams. I've had some really close teams. I've had some teams that have been crazy efficient on the offensive end and ones that have been pretty darned good on the defensive end that probably didn't get credit for it," Few said. "These guys are all of that. All of it."