5 biggest storylines entering National Championship Game
It is difficult to imagine the 2017 National Championship living up to the high expectations set by last year’s stunning affair. After a hotly-contested 40 minute game, fans were treated to a wild shot by North Carolina’s Marcus Paige to tie the game and a buzzer-beater to win the championship by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins.
The Tar Heels are back to avenge last year’s loss, meeting a capable Gonzaga squad with just one loss on the season. Both teams have a stable of stars, any of whom could play Jenkins’ role this season and be a hero on the biggest stage in college basketball.
Here’s a look at the five biggest storylines entering the title game.
1. Battle of the big men
In Saturday’s games, the centers and forwards took center stage. Both teams feature talented and skilled big men who could decide the championship.
For North Carolina, Kennedy Meeks may have played the best game of his life on Saturday night. His 25 rebounds and 14 rebounds paced the Tar Heels, with his crucial game-sealing rebound clinching a win for Carolina. He made up for lackluster play from his frontcourt mate, Isaiah Hicks, who shot a ghastly 1-for-12 in the game.
Elite Eight hero Luke Maye and five-star recruit Tony Bradley come off the bench to give the Heels constant energy and production inside the paint.
Gonzaga counters with an impressive trio of its own. Johnathan Williams, a transfer from Missouri, could be the most athletic big in the championship game. The lanky lefty is capable of playing above the rim on both ends of the floor. He’s flanked by a combination of 7-foot tall centers.
Senior Przemek Karnowski has collected more wins than any player in college basketball history in his career at Gonzaga, while Zach Collins is just a freshman, but is just as dangerous. They form a perfect one-two punch, with the mountain-sized Karnowski throwing body blows and Collins beating defenders every which way inside of 15 feet. In fact, down the stretch against South Carolina, Mark Few played both his giants together and the Gamecocks had no answer.
2. Justin Jackson’s match-up advantage
Gonzaga’s starting lineup features a three guard attack that can be deadly at both ends of the floor. In Monday’s championship though, those guards may struggle against North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson.
Jackson, who was named ACC Player of the Year, is a long, stretchy 6-foot-8 and causes match-up nightmares for most teams. Gonzaga should be no exception. The Zags’ rotation features four guards under 6-foot-4 and four big men over 6-foot-9, with no natural fit to defend Jackson.
Jackson likely will have the chance to shoot over smaller defenders like Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, and Silas Melson, or he could blow by a bigger opponent, like Johnathan Williams or Killian Tillie.
3. Nigel Williams-Goss’ coming out party
Gonzaga’s point guard has been spectacular this season, but has yet to become a household name, though that could change Monday night.
Nigel Williams-Goss sat out last season after transferring from Washington to Gonzaga. His ascendance to the top of college basketball this year marks the third Bulldog to be named an All-American after a mid-career redshirt season in recent memory, following Kyle Wiltjer and Kelly Olynyk. Whatever Mark Few’s staff is doing with players not on the active roster is clearly working.
Williams-Goss has been more effective and productive at Gonzaga than he ever was at Washington, while also becoming a top-notch defender. A noteworthy championship performance could land Williams-Goss as the odds-on favorite for National Player of the Year next season.
4. Gonzaga’s defense faces its toughest test
The Zags defense is ranked as the best in the nation in efficiency, but North Carolina’s offense will be the most difficult challenge Gonzaga has seen this season.
The fast-paced, high-octane Tar Heel attack causes all sorts of problems in transition. Any chance North Carolina gets to take advantage of opponents being out of position or lazy getting back, the Heels will gladly exploit. Finding shooters like Joel Berry and Justin Jackson as they spot up is crucial to slowing the North Carolina scoring punch.
In the half court, North Carolina stretches out defenses, looking for gaps to penetrate and open jump shots. Once the ball is in the air, Gonzaga needs to find and block out the Heels, who lead the nation in offensive rebounding.
Gonzaga has shown the ability to play at any pace, but this North Carolina team is committed to speeding up the game until their opponent is uncomfortable. The Zags’ ballhandlers will face the tall task of responding to North Carolina’s breakneck tempo.
5. Blue bloods against the new blood
This championship feels so much bigger than the two teams involved. Gonzaga would be the first non-power conference champion since UNLV won it all 27 years ago, and only the second such champion since 1970.
While Gonzaga feels like one of the biggest programs in the country and not a mid-major, reaching the top of the college basketball mountain is no easy feat. Winning a national championship would truly be a major hurdle for the Gonzaga program and mid-majors everywhere. A Zags win would vindicate every mid-major looking for a number one seed or national respect in the years to come.
Meanwhile, North Carolina fans are seeking a leg up in the race for historical success. The Tar Heels already locked up a national best 20th Final Four appearance, but a fifth national title would break a tie with Indiana and hated rival Duke. If conference pride is your thing, a UNC win would give the ACC the most championships by current conference members, and pull the conference just one win behind the Pac-12 for the most won at the time of the championship.
Roy Williams could also add to his extensive trophy case. Another national championship, his third, would put his resume among the best of all-time.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.