It's been said more than a few times that we're getting the rare treat of watching the best two teams in the country playing for the national championship on Monday night. Eh, I'm not buying it.
Make no mistake, Gonzaga and North Carolina are excellent, but believing these teams are 1A and 1B says more about our short memories and overvaluing of results in a wild unpredictable tournament. How quickly we forget Villanova and Kansas, the two other top seeds that were ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, by the committee (Carolina and Gonzaga were Nos. 3 and 4). Entering the tournament, these teams were a jumble, neither was demonstrably better or worse than another.
The difference today is that the Heels and Bulldogs survived. Any one of the four No. 1 seeds could have lost games they won (Gonzaga to Northwestern and West Virginia; North Carolina to Arkansas and Kentucky) or won games they lost (Kansas to Oregon; Villanova to Wisconsin) but these are the two that stayed alive. Of course they're the two best basketball teams in the country right now. For all intents and purposes, they're the only two basketball teams in the country.
North Carolina, of course, lost last year's title on the first championship-game buzzer beater the tournament has ever seen. They look to enact some revenge on Monday night - indirectly trying to pay back Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart by putting it to Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski. Every UNC starter played on last year's team. The experience of watching Marcus Paige hit an improbable game-tying three with under five seconds remaining, only to see Jenkins drain a three of his own as the backboard went red, is still with them.
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Some would say it makes The Tar Heels are more dangerous. They have experience and are fueled by regret and disappointment. That's the half-full view. The half-empty one says that experience is overrated and whatever fuel they have is matched by an equal amount of fear. The Heels know what it's like to lose a championship game (and that makes them hungrier to win one). The Heels know what it's like to lose a championship game (and that makes them anxious at the thought of doing it again).
It's rare for the reigning runner-up to make it back to the championship game - it's only happened six times* in history. Those teams have split their chances at vengeance with three winning the title that eluded them the previous year and three going home a back-to-back loser. The first-ever team to pull the successful feat is a familiar one: In 1981, North Carolina lost its third championship game under Dean Smith but made it back in '82 to beat Georgetown and give the legendary coach the title that had eluded him for 21 years. (* The 1961-62 Ohio State teams of John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas also dropped back-to-back titles, but those losses were preceded by a championship in 1960. Different situation.)
Is the Fab Five fear real? UNC knows all about that too. Smith won his second title over a Michigan team that was playing in its second-straight championship game. The previous year's experience did the Wolverines so well and gained them so much poise that Chris Webber both walked and called a timeout he didn't have on the most infamous possession in NCAA tournament history.
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Vegas likes Carolina by 1.5 points (with an implied win probability of 57%) while KenPom has Gonzaga by 4 (and gives the Bulldogs a 63% chance at victory). This suggests the public is a bit blinded by that Carolina blue, the same way they are when betting on other giants of the sports world such as the Cowboys, Tiger Woods or Roger Federer. Will Gonzaga be blinded too?
They shouldn't be. Despite the annual home-and-homes with Portland, Pepperdine, San Francisco and Pacific, Gonzaga is one of the most seasoned programs in the country and, with a team led by two upperclassmen (with a star freshman to boot), has as much experience as Carolina -- minus the whole title-game loss thing. But if there's a possibility of UNC having an underlying fear of failure, there's just as much chance of Gonzaga having the same.
Prior to this season, the Zags have been abysmal when matched up against the best teams in the sport. There are always cries that the power conferences won't play the Gonzagas and Wichita States of the world in the regular season because they fear it's a no-win situation. But when Mark Few's team has gotten the chance, they've flopped.
Since 2000, Gonzaga had been 23-44 against teams ranked in the AP top 25 with a horrific 4-26 mark against top-10 teams. In that same span, the Zags were 0-9 in NCAA tournament games against top-10 teams, 4-12 against any ranked team, 2-9 versus top-four seeds and 3-9 against schools that had a recent champion on their resume.
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Seemingly every time Gonzaga meets up with a blue blood, a loss follows. The Zags have dropped tourney games to Michigan State, Arizona (x2), UCLA, North Carolina, Syracuse, Ohio State, Duke and Syracuse. Their best wins are against St. John's (No. 2 seed), Virginia (No. 5 seed), Indiana (No. 6 seed), UCLA (No. 11 seed) and Utah (No. 3 seed). It's a good thing this year's draw was almost as simple as can be. Other than having to face No. 4 West Virginia in the Sweet 16, Gonzaga's other opponents were seeded No. 16, No. 8, No. 11 and No. 7. The only thing Gonzaga has proved thus far is that it can avoid the tournament upsets that have plagued them. Beating a top team is next on the list.
As if that wasn't a big enough mountain to climb, teams entering the tournament with either zero or one loss are 0-for-24 since Indiana captured the title in 1976. (At least Gonzaga already has most of them beat just by making the final, something only four of those could do.)
Those results are more important than the compelling, but overrated, narrative about Gonzaga, the small school from Spokane, playing the blue bloods from Chapel Hill, whose signature color is the same hue as the sky because, as the story goes, God is a Tar Heel. It's David vs. Goliath in name only. Imagine that matchup if David were 20 years older, wiser and battle-tested and you'll be far closer. Gonzaga isn't facing Dean Smith, Phil Ford, Michael Jordan, Antawn Jamison and Tyler Hansbrough on Monday night. They're facing a collection of players who are on the same exact level. The only difference is the name of the jersey and the mystique it supposedly carries.
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So who wins? Predictions are a fool's game. We can know which matchups are favorable, which players are hot, which ones are struggling and how teams handle leads, deficits and everything in between. But if we could predict the future, what'd be the point of any of this? Hundreds of thousands of words have been spilled trying to analyze Monday night's game, trying to find which edge will benefit which team to create which result. To sum all of it up: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Gonzaga has used its bigs to control the pace and paint this season, as in the first 30 minutes of their win over South Carolina. That was a perfect matchup for the Zags given the Gamecocks' lack of interior presence and Gonzaga took advantage - right up until a 16-0 South Carolina run put the Bulldogs down two points. They were resilient and shut down South Carolina from there, but that vaunted Gonzaga defense showed signs of cracking.
In the other national semifinal, North Carolina practically engraved an invitation for Oregon to make the title game, turning the ball over, missing layups, bricking free throws and all the other things teams do while cold. But, as teams have to do in March, the Heels survived.
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UNC is the worst matchup Gonzaga has seen in the tournament. Their front court - including Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and ACC Player of the Year and first-team All-American Justin Jackson - are effective and deep, which should help neutralize the Zags' two seven-footers, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins. There won't be as many easy buckets inside for Gonzaga.
But as the backcourt goes, so does the tournament. That's the old adage anyway, college basketball's version of "defense wins championships." In that case, advantage Gonzaga. Nigel Williams-Goss is a do-everything guard who's one of the most efficient shooters in the country. With the two bigs down low, Williams-Goss and his backcourt cohorts Jordan Matthews and Josh Perkins, get space to create and do so better than any guards in the country.
North Carolina will counter with Goss with their point guard, Joel Berry II. It was always going to be an unfavorable matchup for Carolina, but then Berry turned both ankles on the team's run to the Final Four. Though he looked spry in the win over Oregon (the junior said he was "85 percent"), Berry was 2-14 from the floor and missed more free throws than he had all season.
Play the game 100 times and I'd pick Gonzaga to win 55. But they only have to play it once - on Monday night at 9:20 p.m. ET, from the 77,000-seat University of Phoenix Stadium. Carolina has survived two subpar performances this tournament and then needed a near buzzer-beater to win another. The adversity will do them well and the shots that didn't fall on Saturday will find kinder rims tonight. Revenge, avenge, Tar Heels.
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