It’s here! The Madness has reached a fever pitch. Despite all the upsets and all the mayhem we still have a full-blown juggernaut matchup in store to see who gets to call themselves the 2017 NCAA Champions. Two number one seeds take the court when Gonzaga and North Carolina tip off on Monday night and the atmosphere will be electric.
Two very different teams will take the court but their results have been the same. A dominant regular season followed by an exciting and challenging trip through the tournament. It’s the old versus the new on Monday night as Gonzaga has never been to the Finals while North Carolina is making their 11th trip to the big game. For the Tar Heels there’s even more at stake after they lost on arguably the greatest buzzer beater of all time when Villanova sent them packing in the championship game last season. Now the Tar Heels will try to avoid back to back losses in the final game with a desperate and hungry Bulldogs team in their way. Bring it on.
These two teams stack up great against one another and it will be similar styles of basketball when they eventually tip off on Monday night. North Carolina has showcased one of the most dominant front courts in the tournament with some more-than-ready NBA prospects taking center stage while Gonzaga has the strength and skill to match up well with them inside.
Both teams have smart and aggressive guards that are capable of taking over the game at any moment with great shooting and smart passing. They take care of the ball well and have shown the poise and leadership to get out of the stickiest of situations. They have also head had their scares along the way, and those close games can be used as experiences to lean on when things get choppy in the Finals.
Gonzaga held on against a surprisingly tough South Carolina team but dominated Xavier in the round prior. Many pundits will say the Bulldogs have had a much easier path to the championship but they have had their scares along the way like when they held on in a crazy finish against West Virginia, or their slim six point win over North Western.
As for North Carolina, they have had an excellent run though the tournament with huge blowout wins to go along with a few hard-earned victories. They needed the last five minutes to come back against Arkansas and barely held on for the two point win against Kentucky in one of the best games of the bracket. They used an incredible rebounding effort off of missed free throws in the dying seconds against Oregon and will have to see if they have enough magic left to hold on to win it all.
The Tar Heels have some players who can flat out ball. Justin Jackson leads the team with 18.3 points per game and continues to climb up scouts’ rankings as the NBA draft looms. He has recorded three separate games of 20 points or more in the tournament and his 105 made threes also lead the team for the season. He’s a special talent and his offensive display was magnificent against the Ducks considering how poorly the team shot.
UNC made just 37 percent of their field goals and if wasn’t for Oregon’s poor shooting they likely wouldn’t be in the national championship game. Joel Berry II has been excellent for North Carolina all season long with 14.5 points a game this year but has struggled to shoot the ball with any consistency during the tournament. He’s currently playing on two sprained ankles and his injury was clearly bothering him against Oregon. He made just two of his 14 shot attempts against the Ducks and that type of inefficiency will be exposed by a very good Gonzaga team if he can’t get it together.
Speaking of that Gonzaga team, the Bulldogs know how to score the basketball. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss has been superb for the Zags all season long with a team best 16.9 points and also leads the club in assists. He’s made a case all season to be one of the best point guards in the country and has led his team through thick and thin so far during the tournament. He’ll have to zig (and zag) his way through the field of trees that is North Carolina’s front court but if anyone has the court vision to succeed it’s Williams-Goss.
A key player for Gonzaga is going to be Zach Collins. Despite being a backup, the freshman has rocketed up NBA scouts’ lists this season and throughout the tournament. He was unreal against South Carolina with 14 points and that’s not even getting to his defense. Collins is going to be the x-factor for Gonzaga inside and we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bulldogs try and use him early in the game.
Speaking of how well Collins played for Gonzaga, it was his defense that really stood out. He grabbed 13 boards and swatted away six shots against the Gamecocks in the semi-final. Considering how long North Carolina’s front court is he’ll need to be just as sharp on Monday night coming off the bench. It won’t all fall on Collins though. Gonzaga is also led by senior Przemek Karnowski who averages 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds and junior Johnathan Williams who drops 10.2 points of his own a night and a team-best 6.5 rebounds.
They’ll need to play even bigger than that against what North Carolina has inside. The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin at +12.7 a game this season thanks to the play of Kennedy Meeks in the paint. The six foot ten senior is averaging 9.4 rebounds a game this season but has been out of this world lately. Over his last four games he’s pulled down 13.4 boards a night and will be more than ready for another shot at a national championship on Monday.
UNC is also long all over the court. Meeks leads the team in blocked shots as well with 1.2 a night, but the athleticism and length of Jackson and Isaiah Hicks (who blocked three shots against Kentucky) will also be hard to deal with for Gonzaga.
Johnathan Williams against Justin Jackson. We’ve talked a lot about Jackson throughout this tournament and rightly so. He’s the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year this season and shoots 38.2 percent from three despite being one of the best slashers and drivers in the country. He’ll be up against the equally long Williams who was excellent against south Carolina. He locked down Sindarius Thornwell and while Williams averages just 10.3 points a game, his 6.6 rebounds are evidence of his ability to crash the glass. If he can neutralize Jackson to some extent it could be a long night for the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels are opening as slight favorites but this game essentially amounts to whoever your gut is telling you to pick. We don’t see North Carolina losing back to back games in the national championship and the team with the best player is often the one that wins. Jackson is the greatest talent on the court and we have the feeling he’s going to turn in a special performance for the Tar Heels in the final. Take UNC on the spread.