Redemption for the Tar Heels
Chris Noyes, Heights Staff
For the University of North Carolina (32-7, 14-4 Atlantic Coast), this season has been about one thing: redemption. As they pushed through an extremely difficult ACC schedule, emerging as the best team in the league, and gritted their way to the Final Four, the pain of last season’s 77-74 defeat to the Villanova Wildcats in the national championship shadowed them the entire way. Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beating 3-pointer has played over and over in their heads for an entire year.
And as head coach Roy Williams’ team returns to the championship game this season, it’ll feel a sense of déjà vu peering across the court at its opponents. Much like Villanova, the Gonzaga Bulldogs (37-1, 17-1 West Coast) enter the tournament’s final contest looking to smash their public image as a good team from an inferior conference that is ultimately unfit for March basketball. But unlike last season, the Tar Heels won’t have the luxury of entering the contest with the numbers pointing to them as the favorite.
As odd as it is to say this, Gonzaga should definitely be considered the favorite heading into Monday night’s game. Though the Vegas line currently has them as 1.5-point underdogs, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and kenpom.com—two metrics that focus largely on the quality of the teams and not public perception of the programs—have the Zags as 58-percent and 63-percent favorites, respectively. And the argument is quite persuasive.
A frontcourt rotation featuring Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound mountain of a man with a beard that would make the most hardened lumberjack blush, and Zach Collins, the first McDonald’s All American that head coach Mark Few has ever had in Spokane, have led the Zags to the best defensive efficiency rating in the country. Opponents are shooting just 39.8 percent on 2-pointers against Gonzaga and a paltry 46.1 percent on shots at the rim per hoop-math.com, both tops in the nation.
Spearheaded by point guard Nigel Williams-Goss—a transfer from Washington—Few’s offense ranks sixth nationally, equally adept at finishing in the paint and beyond the arc. Karnowski and Collins provide bailout options in the post, as well as players that command a double team, leading to quick ball rotation and open shots. Despite the reactions that its program provokes among those who refuse to admit a team outside the Power Five conferences could be elite, Gonzaga has undoubtedly cobbled together a veritable Goliath, and a team Williams should fear.
That being said, the Tar Heels aren’t simply going to roll over and hand Few his first national title. This team feels like a team of destiny, with three juniors and three seniors comprising the top of the rotation. Though an unfamiliar description when applied to a traditional basketball powerhouse, the moniker feels accurate. And unlike most “teams of destiny,” the Tar Heels have the physicality, size, talent and coaching to convincingly pull off the upset.
Defensively, UNC has the proper personnel to handle Gonzaga’s loaded offense. In Tony Bradley, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks, Williams has three players that stand at least 6-foot-9 and weight at least 240 pounds at his disposal. Meeks will likely get the early matchup against Karnowski, relishing the opportunity to put his 260 pound frame to work in a battle reminiscent of 1980s college basketball.
Though occasional double teams might be required, for the most part, Meeks should be able to play Karnowski straight up, negating the Polish big man’s passing acumen and forcing him to use his post touches for scoring purposes. While he will certainly score a few times, Meeks’ bulk should make those buckets difficult enough that Few decides playing through Karnowski in the post isn’t the most effective strategy. Hicks and Bradley should be able to match up well with Collins, although the freshman can work from more spots on the floor than Karnowski, as he possesses a quality midrange jumper and an explosive face up game.
Justin Jackson—the reigning ACC player of the year—and Theo Pinson have emerged as lethal defensive stoppers during this tournament. In the Elite Eight, Jackson silenced Kentucky’s Malik Monk, with the highly-touted freshman scoring just six points before his two clutch threes in the game’s final minute. In the Final Four, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey, the Ducks top perimeter scorers, shot a combined 5-for-22 from the field, with Jackson and Pinson defending them most of the game, especially in the second half. On Monday, Williams-Goss will likely be hounded all over the court by the duo, with Pinson figuring to get the bulk of the assignment. The Zags’ star guard will likely find driving to the rim very difficult and settle for more pull up jumpers than he would ideally prefer to shoot.
Though the Tar Heels block surprisingly few shots for a team so large and allow opponents to shoot 63.2 percent on shots at the rim—276th nationally per hoop-math.com—their tough post defense and perimeter stoppers should keep Gonzaga out of the paint and prevent them from taking advantage of that weakness.
Offensively, UNC will present Gonzaga with the same dilemma that faced nearly every ACC opponent this season. Standing 6-foot-8 with a newly developed 3-point shot, Jackson is a matchup nightmare for any team, with the ability to shoot over smaller players and the speed to drive past bigger players before lofting soft floaters in the paint. Since none of Gonzaga’s top four perimeter players stand taller than 6-foot-4, they are faced with an unappealing choice. Either they can try playing three frontcourt players, putting the mobile 6-foot-9 Johnathan Williams on Jackson and dealing with the cluttered spacing caused by three big men on offense, or they can put a smaller defender on Jackson and concede that the gangly junior small forward will probably score around 20 points with relative ease.
Jackson’s matchup advantage must be a big point of emphasis for UNC, considering that Joel Berry II will be operating at far less than 100 percent with two sprained ankles. The junior point guard, who has shot a ghastly 17-for-60 in the tournament after scoring 15.6 points per game and shooting 43.2 percent from downtown in ACC play, has been reduced to a secondary creator and off ball shooter in recent games. With Williams-Goss likely to lock down the hobbled Berry, Jackson must dominate for the Tar Heels to win the game.
The remainder of UNC’s strategy must revolve around making the game miserable for Karnowski and Collins. Playing at the nation’s 42nd fastest pace, the Tar Heels thrive when they can get in the open court and run out in transition. On turnovers or long rebounds, they must race down the court and get the ball to the basket before Karnowski has a chance to lumber back down the floor. They need to make Few pay for playing a rim protector that slow. Limiting Karnowski’s play to that of a role player in this game will disrupt Gonzaga’s rhythm.
But Karnowski has actually played just 16 more minutes in the tournament than Collins. The freshman center has blossomed in extended March minutes, including a career best stat line of 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks in the Final Four against South Carolina. Despite this, the big man has a penchant for fouls, committing 6.1 per 40 minutes, worst among the Zags’ rotation players. Williams should frequently post up Meeks and Hicks against Collins, preventing him from blocking shots as a help defender and forcing him to defend heavier players without getting into foul trouble.
Additionally, dumping the ball inside allows the Tar Heels to take advantage of their best skill. This season, UNC rebounded a whopping 41.7 percent of their own misses, easily the best in the nation. Offensive rebounding is the lifeblood of their offense—Meeks has had at least five offensive rebounds 12 times this season—and despite the fact that teams know UNC will crash the glass, they frequently struggle to stop it. The Tar Heels have lost the game in 5 of their 6 worst offensive rebounding performances, so their success in crashing the boards against the Zags’ massive frontline will prove crucial to determining the victor in Monday’s contest.
Fortunately for Williams, this appears to be a matchup tilted in his favor, especially in the minutes Karnowski’s 300-pound frame is on the bench. Though very tall, Collins weighs just 230 pounds and is likely to be bumped around by Meeks under the rim.
If they can use Pinson to shut down Williams-Goss, get a dominant performance from Jackson, run Karnowski off the floor and attack the paint repeatedly with Collins manning the middle, UNC should have a blueprint for victory.
When the final buzzer sounds this year, the Tar Heels will feel an entirely new emotion: elation. There will be no more tears, no more endless loop of Jenkins’ heartbreaker.
This time, Carolina will reign supreme, sending Williams home with perhaps his most rewarding title yet.
Zags Will End Their Drought
Patrick Conway, For The Heights
When Gonzaga earned the No. 1 spot in the country earlier this year, there were cries that the team didn’t deserve that status. Although the Bulldogs had big out-of-conference wins over Iowa State, Florida, and Arizona, many people still believed that their “weak” schedule in the West Coast Conference should prevent them from being labeled the best team in the country. After finishing this season with one loss, the Bulldogs earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and have made their way to the national championship game. The capable team is full of stars, and if they play to the best of their abilities, the Bulldogs may very well be unbeatable.
Mark Few, Gonzaga’s head coach since 1999, has finally made his first Final Four. After years of criticism that he could not take any of his talented teams past the Elite Eight, Few not only made the Final Four, but he’s on his way to leading his team to the school’s first national championship. Many members of the media have already cut Few some slack saying that he finally got the monkey off his back by making it to the Final Four, and it’s clear that he’s ready to stop. He is experienced after making the tournament 18 years in a row, but he’s now in uncharted waters in the title bout. Few has made the Bulldogs a powerhouse in college basketball, despite their status as a mid major. His team is talented, and Few is hungry for his first title.
One of the main reasons that Gonzaga has been so outstanding this year has been the transfers that have decided to bring their talents to Spokane, Wash. Jordan Matthews, the transfer from Cal and former Teletubbies baller has been a lights-out shooter at times this tournament. His signature play will go down in Gonzaga folklore: the game-winner he cashed to beat West Virginia in the Sweet 16. With about a minute left, Matthews caught a pass from Williams-Goss and buried a 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs the lead. Gonzaga would hang on to win, with a little help from the poor attempt at hero-ball that West Virginia’s Jevon Carter played at the end of the game. Although his shot was massive, it was hardly the first time that Matthews contributed to the success of the Bulldogs. Averaging 10.8 points this season, the transfer has been a key contributor and his ability to heat up behind the arc will be important to watch in the game on Monday night.
The star of this Gonzaga squad, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, is also a transfer student who came from the University of Washington after two seasons. Williams-Goss has been phenomenal, averaging 16.9 points with nearly six rebounds and five assists this year. And he’s only gotten better on the big stage: in the Elite Eight and Final Four matchups against Xavier and South Carolina, Williams-Goss dropped 23 points in each. He is also a very efficient player, and did not turn the ball over once against Xavier.
His defensive ability cannot go overlooked as Williams-Goss is quite a talented defender, as well. At the end of the West Virginia game, it was Williams-Goss who took the burden of locking up Carter’s body. He is the engine of this Gonzaga squad, and if he continues to play at an elite level, North Carolina will have its hands full.
The way that North Carolina has beaten its opponents so far has been by outsizing, out-rebounding, and overpowering them in the paint. With Justin Jackson at 6-foot-8, Isaiah Hicks at 6-foot-9, and Kennedy Meeks at 6-foot-10, the Tar Heels have some beasts that can make an impact with their size. Gonzaga, however, has the pieces to match up with North Carolina in the paint with two 7-footers who see time.
Arguably this year’s most recognizable face in NCAA men’s basketball, Przemek Karnowski has led the Bulldogs’ frontcourt to domination at times. The 7-foot-1, 300 pounder from Poland looks more like a lumberjack than a basketball player, but he has been impressively athletic for someone as big as he is. With footwork that belongs to a guard and not a center, Karnowski has averaged 12.3 points this year, shooting nearly 60 percent, but can explode for 20+ when matchups give him the opportunity. The redshirt senior can also rebound, and it will be fun to watch him duel with either Hicks or Meeks on the boards.
The other 7-footer, Zach Collins, is the most interesting player on Gonzaga as he calls to mind memories of former Zag, Domantas Sabonis. Collins is a freshman who can control the boards, block shots, score, and even stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting. Although he comes off the bench, Collins averaged 10 points and 1.7 blocks this season. Scouts are already saying that Collins could be a lottery pick next year, but this year he has already made waves with Gonzaga and contributed heavily. UNC may be big, but nobody is bigger than Gonzaga and the Tar Heels will have their hands full with the frontcourt of the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs match up well against the Tar Heels, and should give them plenty of trouble on Monday night. With exceptional team defense, talented guards, and a gargantuan frontcourt, Gonzaga is in as good a position as any to take home its first title. The Bulldogs also may be the deepest team in the tournament, as anyone off their bench can score or contribute. If Williams-Goss and Karnowski play well and are supported by Matthews, Collins and other players like Josh Perkins and Johnathon Williams, they are nearly unstoppable and should prevail. Few and Gonzaga have waited a long time for a championship, and if all goes according to plan, the drought will be over on Monday night.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor