No one said it was ever going to come easy, but the stage is set for the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs to take on the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels at the 2017 NCAA Championship game on Monday, April 3.
Gonzaga nearly squandered a 14 point lead against the South Carolina Gamecocks, but huge games from Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins gave the Zags just enough offense to hold off the charge. Throw in freshman Killian Tillie hitting two free throws (possibly the biggest shots in school history), and the team of destiny moniker keeps on rolling.
After such a great first game of the Final Four, you would be hard pressed to think North Carolina and Oregon could do better—but they did. North Carolina missed four consecutive free throws in the waning seconds, but did what they do best, securing two offensive rebounds to head to their second consecutive title appearance.
Meet the opponent
North Carolina Tar Heels, 32-7, KenPom #3
North Carolina is led by junior guards Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, averaging 18.3 and 14.5 points per game, respectively. Their offense is ranked No. 7 in the country, and their defense is ranked No. 16. But to understand how the Tar Heels made it this far, you have to look at how their point distributions go.
The Tar Heels do not shoot a lot of threes, and instead just relentlessly pound the ball into the hoop or step back and take an open jumper. The offense is a nightmare to deal with in that regard, because opponents have to shadow each and every player on the floor. The prime example of this is center Kennedy Meeks. Meeks averages 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, but he is hardly your prototypical center. Nearly 50 percent of his points come from two point jumpers (for comparison: only 18.8 percent of Zach Collins’ shots are two point jumpers).
This spacing of the floor opens up yet another immense strength of the Tar Heels: they are the best offensive rebounding team in the country. They are also one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the nation, but the Gonzaga bigs are going to have their hands full on both ends of the floor.
If North Carolina catches fire from outside, the Zags will be in trouble. Only 25.5 percent of the Tar Heels points come from three pointers, a distribution that ranks No. 290 in the nation. It is by no means their strongest suit, but if those buckets are falling, then North Carolina is the best team in the country and nearly impossible to defend.
What to watch out for
Can Gonzaga’s defense shore up its ranks for 40 full minutes?
Gonzaga has made its name all tournament with its defense, and so far the defense has continually delivered results. But the championship game will be a different offensive beast in the Tar Heels. Against South Dakota State, West Virginia, and Xavier, the defense was stellar for the full forty minutes. Against Northwestern and South Carolina, there were a few blips on the radar.
The important thing to note here is that, unlike previous Gonzaga squads, the wheels never seemed to come off at that point. But if Gonzaga’s defense is focused, and doing what it does best all game, North Carolina is really going to struggle to find easy points. North Carolina likes to pick up the pace, and is great at passing the ball. Gonzaga is also great at clogging the passing lanes. No matter what, Gonzaga is going to need a full forty minutes of defense to make this all work.
Say goodbye to Zach Collins (perhaps)
Of course, we won’t know for sure until after the season ends, but there is a very good chance that Zach Collins becomes Gonzaga’s first one-and-done player in school history. If there was any doubt about it, just take a look at his line against South Carolina: 14 points, 13 rebounds, and six blocks in 23 minutes. Collins was a force of nature on both the offensive and defensive end, and he might get even more action against North Carolina depending on the condition of Przemek Karnowski’s eye.
Most importantly for Collins, his fantastic game play came when the Zags were being pushed back on their heels. Nigel Williams-Goss scored a lot of the points, Tillie shot the free throws to win the game, but it was Collins’ overall play that put the Zags in the title game. He has turned a lot of NBA heads late into this season, so be prepared to enjoy what might be his final game.
Gonzaga just needs to play like it has all season
Ken Pomeroy puts the Zags as the favorite to win the game, but if you listen to a majority of the talking heads, Gonzaga is going be the underdog going into this game, because you know...it’s North Carolina.
But the thing about this team, they have only faltered once this season, in a game against BYU where everything went wrong. The rest of the time, and this NCAA Tournament, every time the opposition has given their strongest punch, the Zags have punched back even harder. It isn’t pure luck that the Zags are here. They have executed their game plan on the offensive and defensive end of the floor, and they have been the best team in the country when that is clicking. Now, they have the chance to firmly make that statement.
It will not come easy. No Gonzaga win in March ever comes easy, but don’t listen to the rest of the world, who are ready to make this some sort of David vs. Goliath matchup. We aren’t the plucky underdogs anymore who “shock” the nation. We are the Gonzaga Bulldogs and we are in the 2017 NCAA championship game. We belong here, and we are going to show the rest of the world that, whether or not they are ready to see it.
- Time: 6:00 pm PT
- TV: CBS
- Radio: Gonzaga IMG Network (Tom Hudson and Matt Santangelo)
- Online: NCAA.com