The year is 2015. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are leading Gonzaga to their first Elite Eight in 15 years. Someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, in a few years, North Carolina is coming to Gonzaga and playing a game in the McCarthey Athletic Center!” You would probably be pleasantly surprised, but may have to pinch yourself a couple times. Then the person follows up with: “Gonzaga will be ranked second in the country and North Carolina will be unranked.” At that point, you would laugh and tell the person to go away.
Alas, this is the situation on Wednesday night. North Carolina is, in fact, visiting Spokane and is definitely playing Gonzaga in the McCarthey Athletic Center. Gonzaga is, remarkably, ranked second in the nation and UNC is, more remarkably, unranked after losing four of their last five games.
Before the season, both teams were ranked in the top 15 and fans were hoping for a possible top 10 showdown in December. An underachieving roster and a knee injury to Cole Anthony has put a damper on those hopes, and instead we are left with Gonzaga being double digit favorites in a game they should win.
Meet the Opponent
North Carolina Tar Heels (6-4, KenPom 36)
Here’s the deal: There is very little offensive talent on this team if Cole Anthony doesn’t play. His knee injury has gotten progressively worse throughout the year and now he is out indefinitely. If Leaky Black (sprained foot) is out, too, then it gets even worse. On the season, with them healthy, they are 308th in effective FG percentage, 304th in 3pt percentage, 298th in 2pt percentage and 318th in free throw percentage. They also turn the ball over at their highest rate since 2010, which was the last time UNC missed the tournament. Without Anthony and Black, they have to rely on someone else to step up at the guard spot. Brandon Robinson can be that guy. He was a role player as a junior last year and has started since coming back from injury a few games into the season. But against Ohio State and Virginia, his offensive ratings were 88 and 40.
Their big guys are not as spectacular as years past, but are certainly solid and the foundation of this team. And they really need them to play well to have a chance in this game. Freshman Armando Bacot, who is coming off a 2-for-14 performance in a loss to Wofford on Sunday, teams with junior Garrison Brooks, who has been their most consistent player.
Grad transfer Christian Keeling moved back into the starting lineup on Sunday, as did Pacific transfer KJ Smith. Their other grad transfer, Justin Pierce, is shooting 25 percent from deep coming off the bench. Roy Williams is still trying to find role players to come off the bench and contribute. On Sunday, they tried freshmen Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris. They combined for two points in 25 minutes.
So how does North Carolina stay in this game? The same way they’ve dominated for a decade: offensive rebounding. They are ninth in the nation in OREB percentage. Armando Bacot is 15th in country in grabbing offensive rebounds. After watching Zeke Nnaji tear Gonzaga apart for a half, that may give you pause. However, Gonzaga is 12th in country in defensive rebounding and shored up the Nnaji problem in the second half. If they force UNC’s guards to beat them and limit the offensive rebounds, Gonzaga should win this game fairly handily, even with a banged up Anton Watson and Killian Tillie.
Of course, nothing is ever that easy. In case you forgot, we’ve seen this match-up before. In 2006, the roles were reversed. UNC was ranked number two in the nation and Gonzaga was unranked. Josh Heytvelt owned Tyler Hansbrough and the Zags pulled off the upset at Madison Square Garden. Since then, UNC has wins in the 2009 tournament, the 2017 National Championship, and a win last season in Chapel Hill. There may be a lot of pent up revenge in the Bulldogs’ blood on Wednesday night.