NCAA Championship 2017: UNC's experience could make the difference in title game vs. Gonzaga
What to watch, key storylines and a preview of college basketball's national championship game
Both teams survived narrow wins Saturday night to extend their 2017 season into college basketball’s final evening, with the Bulldogs holding off a second-half charge from South Carolina and the Tar Heels avoiding potentially disastrous missed free throws with offensive rebounds to bleed out the clock in a one-point win against Oregon.
Late-game execution and a heavy sigh of relief were the common themes between these two title hopefuls, who now have a quick turnaround before playing for it all on Monday night (9:20 p.m. ET, CBS).
Here are eight things to know about Gonzaga-UNC:
1. Gonzaga is the best ATS team in the country
North Carolina opened out in Las Vegas as a narrow (-2) betting favorite, but experts are already starting to line up on Gonzaga’s side and the against-the-spread stats suggest it is wise to be wary of the Bulldogs. Gonzaga had one of the best records against the spread in all of college basketball this season (23-10-2, per TeamRankings.com), beating the oddsmaker’s number 69.7 percent of the time and beating the spread by an average of 4.9 points per game.
2. Both teams dominate major statistical categories
Another factor in experts picking the Vegas underdog Gonzaga is KenPom’s projections favoring the title game rookies from the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in KenPom’s ratings, North Carolina is No. 3 and both squads have been among the top teams in the country in several key categories.
|Off Reb. %||142||1|
|Opp. Off Reb %||47||25|
3. Gonzaga has the hot hand
Gonzaga was on fire in the first half against South Carolina -- 57.6 percent from the field, 55.6 percent from 3-point range and 100 percent from the free-throw line -- and has built confidence in its execution over the course of this season and this tournament that helped it respond after the Gamecocks’ stunning 16-0 run later in the game. Nigel Williams-Goss is playing like a man possessed right now on offense (23 points on 9-of-16 shooting), driven to finish this journey with a national championship. Johnathan Williams has been a sniper-style shooter currently on a streak of saving the team during offensive droughts and 7-foot freshman Zach Collins showed his NBA-ready game on Saturday night with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks in just 23 minutes.
4. North Carolina, meanwhile ...
Twice in this tournament North Carolina has won despite long stretches of poor offensive production. Against Arkansas in the second round the Tar Heels trailed for most of the second half before finishing the game on a 12-0 run. Saturday night’s win against Oregon was the opposite, with no field goals in the final 5:50 of the game and four missed free throws in the final five seconds. It was the lowest field-goal percentage in a win (.371) for UNC all season and included another cold shooting night for junior guard Joel Berry (2-of-14) and senior forward Isaiah Hicks (1-of-12).
5. Unlikely stars showed up on the big stage for both teams
With North Carolina struggling to get a bucket, senior big man Kennedy Meeks continued what has been an impressive tournament run with one of the best games of his career. Meeks had 25 points, 14 rebounds and, while the rest of the team struggled, he went 11-for-13 from the field. On the other end of the spectrum from the senior chasing a title in his second straight Final Four is the 19-year-old Zach Collins, the NBA lottery pick who has emerged as a secret weapon behind the slightly larger and much more visible Przemek Karnowski. Matt Norlander is on the scene in Phoenix and profiled the performance of both unlikely stars in a must-read pieces for Monday night’s matchup.
6. The battle inside will determine the game
North Carolina has the No. 1 rebounding margin in the country, and is the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country. But Gonzaga has a pair of rim protectors in Karnowski and Collins that can not only keep Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and UNC off the boards but deny opportunities for those easy put-back buckets that have helped North Carolina power through poor shooting in the past. Gonzaga’s size and depth inside is the great equalizer in this matchup, according to CBS Sports analyst Seth Davis.
“I have a hard time envisioning North Carolina winning the game,” Davis said on Saturday night after the Final Four. “It’s going to be the first time all season they are going up against a team that has as much size and depth in the frontcourt as they have.”
7. Final Four experience edge heavily favors North Carolina
North Carolina has the most NCAA Tournament victories since 2000 (46), while Gonzaga just started making the Sweet 16 in 1999. This is Mark Few’s first Final Four and Roy Williams’ ninth -- only Mike Krzyzewski (12), John Wooden (12) and Dean Smith (11) have more Final Four appearances -- and the top six players in the Tar Heels’ rotation have been on the roster for 14 NCAA Tournament games over the last three years, including last year’s Monday night buzzer-beater loss to Villanova.
North Carolina, by the way, is 5-5 in NCAA Tournament title games.
This is the second time North Carolina has reached the title game in back-to-back years. In 1981, the Tar Heels lost to Indiana. The next season, in 1982, Dean Smith captured his first national championship thanks to a game-winner from then-freshman Michael Jordan against Georgetown.
8. Chasing John Calipari
If Gonzaga defeats North Carolina it will be just the fourth team in Division I history with 38 wins in a season. All of the other three teams were coached by John Calipari -- 2015 Kentucky, 2012 Kentucky, 2008 Memphis. All three of those teams made the Final Four, but only the 2012 Wildcats team led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist finished the season as national champions.
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