By Mike Bachini, CBS Connecticut
Connecticut (CBS) – As always is the case, this college basketball season flew by. It seems like just yesterday the season opened up on November 11th. Back then, Duke was the #1 team in the country. Reigning National Champion Villanova was ranked #4. Where were our title game participants? North Carolina was #6 and Gonzaga was #14. A lot has happened between now and then for both teams. But this National Championship match up feels right. North Carolina is an experienced team full of players who saw a bunch of key minutes in last year’s National Championship game. And Gonzaga has had the best record and been the most consistent team throughout the season.
(1) Gonzaga (37-1) vs. (1) North Carolina (32-7) – 9:20 PM ET CBS
How They Got Here
1st Round – W over South Dakota State 66-46
2nd Round – W over Northwestern 79-73
Sweet 16 – W over West Virginia 61-58
Elite 8 – W over Xavier 83-59
Final 4 – W over South Carolina 77-73
It’s been a long season, but Gonzaga has only lost 1 game since November 11th. At times different teams seemed like the best teams in the country. Duke had their time, then it was Kentucky, then it was Villanova again. Teams like Baylor and UCLA also received attention for their play. Even with an undefeated record and wins over Florida, Iowa State and Arizona on their resume, it took Gonzaga until week 13 and a 22-0 record to reach #1. Still, most wondered how good they really were. Florida and Iowa State hadn’t hit their stride yet at that point so those didn’t even look like the great wins they ended up being at the end of the season. It was more like they were #1 by default. They were undefeated and both Villanova and Kansas had two losses, North Carolina and Kentucky had 4 each and Duke fell all the way back to #24 in the country with their 5 losses. It was almost as if they had to be #1 at that point. Gonzaga held that #1 spot for four weeks until they lost at home to BYU and fell to #4.
It was a popular opinion that Gonzaga was just beating up on inferior opponents in the West Coast Conference and that their winning percentage needed to be taken with a grain of salt. There was a little bit of truth to that line of thinking. When North Carolina and Duke were battling with the ACC day in and day out and Kentucky was playing the major opponents of the SEC while Gonzaga was beating up on Portland, San Diego, Pacific and Loyola Marymount for the better part of two months, it was easy to be blinded by their schedule.
But Gonzaga wasn’t just beating those teams. They were destroying them. They were beating their conference opponents by an average of 27.4 points per game. This stretch also included three wins over a St. Mary’s squad that was consistently ranked in the top 25 all season long by an average of 17 points. St. Mary’s earned a 7 seed in the tournament this season and made it to the round of 32. They weren’t a slouch.
Ok so people had to come to terms with the fact that Gonzaga was a good team. There was no denying that. They earned their #1 seed. But how would they fair against better opponents in the NCAA Tournament after playing pretty bad teams for two months? That was a fair question.
In their first round match up against South Dakota State, the Bulldogs found themselves up only 26-22 at the half. This was not the way to make a statement. They played much better in the second half and won the game by 20. It was the opposite in the second game against Northwestern. Gonzaga played an extremely strong first half and were up by 18 at the break. Northwestern went on a 23-8 run in the second half to close the gap to 5, but then Gonzaga re-grouped and ended up finishing off the Wildcats. In the Sweet 16 they played a low scoring, tough game against West Virginia and won by only scoring 61 points. In the Elite Eight they erupted for 83 points and beat Xavier by 24. In the Final Four they became the first team to survive South Carolina’s crazy second half runs and held off the Gamecocks by 4. They’ve done everything that has been asked of them to this point and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be up to the task against the Tar Heels either.
Junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss was the best player on the floor in the game against South Carolina on Saturday. Goss scored 23 points and added 5 rebounds and 6 assists while playing some solid defense as well. Goss tweaked his ankle in the second half in the game and admitted on Sunday that his ankle was “pretty sore”. Senior center Przemek Karnowski was also a little banged up after taking a finger to the eye at the end of the first half in the game and told trainers that he was having trouble seeing out of his eye after the hit. He played well in the second half, so any concerns about the injury lingering into tonight’s game should go away.
Freshman center Zach Collins also had a huge game on Saturday scoring 14 points with 13 rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench for the Bulldogs. His size and length along with the size of Karnowski will be a big equalizer in tonight’s game. What Oregon lacked in size, Gonzaga has. They’ll also need Johnathan Williams to continue playing great defense and for Jordan Mathews to continue knocking down three point shots like he did on Saturday (4-8 from 3).
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
How They Got Here
1st Round – W over Texas Southern 103-64
2nd Round – W over Arkansas 72-65
Sweet 16 – W over Butler 92-80
Elite 8 – W over Kentucky 75-73
Final 4 – W over Oregon 77-76
North Carolina started the season on fire. They won the Maui Invitational in convincing fashion, winning games against future NCAA Tournament teams like Oklahoma State and Wisconsin by 32 and 15 points respectfully. They dropped their next game in the ACC/Big Ten challenge at Indiana by 9, lost a thriller to Kentucky 103-100 on a neutral court in Las Vegas, and then lost their ACC opener on the road to Georgia Tech. At that point the Tar Heels were 12-3 and looking like just another team in the mix, rather than a team that had separated itself from the pack.
Since then, North Carolina has gone 20-4 with their losses coming on the road to Duke, Virginia and Miami and to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals, the latter of which the Tar Heels blew a 13 point lead with just under 14 minutes to play. A few thought that Duke’s 2 wins over North Carolina and their ACC Tournament run would propel them to a #1 seed over North Carolina. Instead, Duke was handed a #2 seed and North Carolina held on to the #1 seed in the South.
North Carolina has run the gauntlet to this point in the tournament. They easily took care of 16 seeded Texas Southern by 39 points in the first round. In the second round they survived a scare against 8th seeded Arkansas, needing a late comeback to win. In the Sweet 16 their offense was clicking against a very good Butler team. In the Elite Eight they exorcised the demons against Kentucky and avenged their early season loss in dramatic fashion. In the Final Four they pulled away from Oregon in the second half, but never officially put the Ducks away until the final horn sounded.
As great as Williams-Goss was for Gonzaga in their semifinal game, Senior forward Kennedy Meeks was just as great for the Tar Heels. Meeks scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds including the game clincher after a missed free throw by teammate Joel Berry II. Meeks will have his hands full with Collins and Karnowski in this game. Meeks and Senior forward Justin Jackson combined for 47 total points on 17-26 shooting. That was the good. The ugly was the shooting and performances of Isaiah Hicks and Berry. The two of them combined for 13 points on 3-26 shooting. A lot of that can be attributed to Oregon’s very good defense. Some of that is also a result of Berry’s injuries.
Berry is currently dealing with injuries to both ankles. Berry sprained his left ankle in practice two Saturday’s ago and hurt his right ankle against Kentucky in the Elite 8. Berry was able to tough it out and play 35 minutes, but his percentages showed that Berry was clearly affected by these problems. Berry is a 79% free throw shooter on the season, but went 5-9 from the line on Saturday, including two huge misses in the final seconds that luckily for the Tar Heels didn’t end up costing them thanks to Meeks huge rebound after he too missed two free throws just 2 seconds earlier. It’ll be interesting to see which PG’s ankles are feeling better tonight, Berry’s or Williams-Goss’.
As mentioned above, this match up feels like the match up the country deserves. Gonzaga has been the best team all season and North Carolina has all the experience and is looking to get over the edge after last year’s last second defeat in the championship game. Hopefully the injuries to key players don’t play a large role and we get something similar to last year’s game. A game winning three at the buzzer might be a lot to ask, but I believe this game will not disappoint. It should be a good cap to what has been a pretty incredible season.
Follow Mike Bachini on Twitter @MikeBachini