He didn’t know it while it was happening because there was no way to know it while it was happening. But the way this wild and unpredictable NCAA Tournament unfolded put Tennessee’s Rick Barnes in a category of one.
He’s the only man who has coached against each Final Four team.
Did you realize that?
Barnes’ Vols lost 69-65 to Oregon on Nov. 22, 73-71 to North Carolina on Dec. 11, 86-76 to Gonzaga on Dec. 18 -- and then twice to South Carolina in the SEC. The first game with the Gamecocks was 70-60. The second was ... 82-55.
“So, if you really think about it, [South Carolina is] the only team we didn’t play well,” Barnes said before I asked him to break down this Final Four from a perspective no other college basketball coach possesses.
Nobody else knows what it’s like to deal with Justin Jackson, Dillon Brooks, Nigel Williams-Goss and Sindarius Thornwell. Nobody else played 14 games against teams that made this NCAA Tournament and concluded the following even before the Final Four was set: “I’ve said it before -- that the two best teams we played all year were Gonzaga and North Carolina,” Barnes said.
Makes sense, right?
Gonzaga and North Carolina are first and third in KenPom and favored to win Saturday and then meet in Monday’s title game. And, for what it’s worth, Barnes said he does believe the favored teams will win before adding, “But I’m pulling for South Carolina [because of the SEC connection]. I’d love to see South Carolina win. And, I’m telling you, South Carolina can do it because they’re going to fight and grind. … It’s going to be a hard-fought and physical game against Gonzaga. That’s a game where, if I were an official, I wouldn’t want to officiate that one.”
“The most impressive victory to me in this whole thing is what Oregon did to Kansas,” Barnes said. “I don’t care what anybody says. That was the most impressive win in this entire tournament. Going into Kansas City and beating Kansas. And they beat them. That’s the most impressive game I’ve seen a team win in this tournament. ... So logic would tell you it’s going to be a North Carolina-Gonzaga championship game. But who knows? These other two teams might have lightening in a bottle.”
Barnes thinks highly of all four Final Four teams. He made that clear. But, like he said, he’s picking Gonzaga to beat South Carolina and North Carolina to beat Oregon. And he thinks the national champion might be determined by ... an ankle.
“The x-factor is Joel Berry’s ankle,” Barnes said in reference to the injured ankle of UNC’s point guard. “I guarantee you Roy Williams is scared to death about that.”
Assuming we get Gonzaga-North Carolina in the title game, Barnes insisted he could see it going either way. “I bet it’ll be a pick’em game,” he said. And it’s worth noting that Todd Fuhrman, a former oddsmaker at Caesers, told me earlier this week that he believes Gonzaga-North Carolina would indeed open as pick’em.
What does Barnes like about UNC?
“Any team that rebounds 42 percent of its shots can overcome nights when they’re not making 3s,” he said. “And when they’re making 3s, whole different team. When I saw them in Maui, they were on a different level than everybody else. I’d never seen a team play at the level North Carolina was playing at in Maui.”
And what does Barnes like about Gonzaga?
“We scrimmaged Gonzaga every year for 10 years [while I was the coach at Texas] and, I’m telling you, this is the best team, by far, that Mark [Few] has ever had,” Barnes said. “They’re good at every position. And when he goes to the bench he’s got some depth on his bench. Gonzaga has more talent than Mark’s ever had. And they’ve done a great job of coming together.”
And the national champion will be ...
“My gut-feeling is North Carolina ... but I just think it might happen for the Zags,” Barnes answered. “If you’re going to beat Gonzaga you have to get them in high pick-and-rolls when [Przemek] Karnowski is out there because he doesn’t really want to come way out there [and guard]. But that’s not really what Carolina is set up to do, you know? So I think I’d pick the Zags because I just think they’re going to be more consistent shooting the ball. And because I think they have a frontline that can hold on to Carolina. And because I think the Zags have their feet under them now. They’re playing well. But, like I said, it’s a pick’em game. That’s what I think. Pick’em game.”