- Matt Cox
(1) North Carolina vs. (1) Gonzaga
Initial Thoughts: Despite some shaky 2nd half moments in their respective Final Four matchups, the Zags and the Heels both managed to come up with big time plays when it mattered most. Mark Few and the boys held a comfortable 14-point lead over South Carolina late in the 2nd half of Saturday night's semifinal matchup, only to see it completely erased when the 'Cocks surged back with a timely 16-0 run to make it 67-65 with 7:06 to play. The Zags swiftly punched back with a 7-0 run of their own, which would serve as enough cushion to squeak by the pesky Gamecocks, solidifying their spot in Monday night's national championship game - a destination eerily familiar to Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Much like the Zags, the Tar Heels couldn't keep their foot on the gas late in the 2nd half of their semifinal date against Oregon, allowing the Ducks to slowly chip away at a ten point lead. This lead inevitably dwindled down to 1 with just 6 seconds left in regulation, turning the pressure cooker all the way up on two trusted veterans - Kennedy Meeks and Joel Berry. The heat clearly got to both of them as they each missed two straight free throws, which should've left the door wide open for the Ducks to win it on the final possession. Perhaps it was only fitting then that Mr. Meeks finally sealed UNC's victorious fate by way of what he's always done best - clean up the offensive glass. After laying two consecutive bricks just seconds before, Meeks redeemed himself by hauling in Berry's second missed free throw and promptly threw it back out to the top of the key, where Theo Pinson dribbled the ball out as the clock expired on Oregon's season. The timely rebounding earned UNC another crack at a national championship Monday night against a Gonzaga team that has slowly - but surely - silenced the last wave of stubborn critics over the past 4 weeks.
North Carolina on Offense: Please refer to my colleague Ky McKeon's absurdly in-depth breakdown of North Carolina's offense before reading any further, but the key for the Tar Heels should not be a mystery to anyone - dominate the offensive boards. Against an undersized Oregon squad that typically plays a "small-ball" lineup with 4 guards/wings surrounding Jordan Bell inside, UNC absolutely feasted on the offensive glass. They hauled in 17 of their own misses (8 of which were courtesy of Meeks), which frustrated the Ducks all night long as the Tar Heels racked up a ton of extra possessions. Over the first 5 games of the NCAA tournament, UNC has yet to snag fewer than 10 offensive rebounds in any one contest, which helped mask two back-to-back poor shooting displays against Kentucky (3/15 from beyond the arc) and Oregon (17/47 from inside the arc). The challenge for North Carolina will be if they can maintain their dominance on the boards against the best and deepest defensive rebounding team they've seen all tournament.
Don't be fooled by the 13 offensive rebounds posted by South Carolina against the Zags - the Bulldogs actually held the Gamecocks to a 29.5% offensive rebounding rate, 4 percentage points below their season-long average of 33.9%. For those that watched closely, South Carolina attempted a large volume of highly difficult shots around the rim, many of which resulted in a mini-volleyball game that to some degree padded the offensive rebounding stat column for the 'Cocks. The bottom-line is that the Zags frontline could be the offensive rebounding kryptonite the Tar Heels have yet to see so far in this tournament. And while most casual fans are well aware of the Polish Hammer, Przemek Karnowski, the best pro prospect in the final four - Zach Collins - officially had his coming out party Saturday night, tallying 13 boards and 6 blocks in just 23 minutes of action. Expect Collins to see his run increase Monday night, but with Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie rounding out a loaded Gonzaga front court, it's unlikely Few will play Collins any more than 30 minutes against North Carolina. The elite depth up-front for the Zags will be enormous against the Tar Heel trees who have terrorized opponents inside all tournament long.
Moving out to the perimeter is where the matchups get interesting on this side of the ball. Despite being in the heart of the "pace and space" era of basketball history, good 'ole Roy Williams simply has no interest in playing "small". According to the lineup combination data on kenpom.com, Williams will play some combination of two true bigs 95% of the time, which slots Justin Jackson - arguably the tournament's most outstanding player to this point - on the wing at the 3 position. Ironically, Mark Few is just as stubborn playing two of his towers down low at the same time, meaning he has an interesting dilemma in determining who to put on Jackson. Most would agree Nigel Williams-Goss is Few's best perimeter defender and may in-fact be the best option to slow him down, despite giving up 4-5 inches to the 6'8 Jackson. Given both Silas Melson and Josh Perkins are excellent defenders in their own right, Few can get away with putting either of them on Joel Berry, assuming he decides to throw Williams-Goss on Jackson. As we've discussed multiple times on the 3MW podcast, Jackson tends to ignore his height advantage offensively and will rarely take a smaller defender down low and try to score on the block. So while Jackson posting up the smaller Williams-Goss shouldn't be a major concern, the downside is that Jackson will likely get clean looks from the outside, especially against a Zags perimeter unit that doesn't have any real length to bother Jackson with a shot contest. Jackson has sparked some critical runs this tournament with a few quick transition 3s that can turn single digit leads to double digit margins in the blink of an eye.
Gonzaga on Offense: On the defensive end, North Carolina plays almost exclusively man-to-man, meaning the Zags should be able to run their standard half-court sets with minimal disruptions, which revolves around throwing the ball inside as often as possible. Upon watching 25-30 possessions of North Carolina defending post-up situations against both Oregon and Kentucky, Roy Williams has not shown anything fancy from a schematic lens. On the vast majority of low-post touches that went through either Jordan Bell on Saturday or Bam Adebayo on Thursday, Williams chooses to let their bigs handle the assignment 1 on 1 with minimal off-ball support. See two examples below:
Both the eye-test and the advanced metrics prove that there's a clear strategy for how UNC defends the post - stay home on perimeter shooters and let opposing post players go "mano a mano" with the plethora of Tar Heel giants down low. This approach has worked brilliantly all year long, and the statisticians know as well as anyone that the isolation post-up is typically one of the least efficient offensive plays in basketball. However, the mighty Polish Hammer is far from a "typical" post player, so the onus will be on Meeks and Isaiah Hicks to make life as hard as possible for big Przemek whenever he gets a touch down low. According the to numbers, Hicks is by far the Heels worst post defender, so I'd expect the beefier Meeks to draw the Karnowski assignment.
The unsung reason why the Tar Heels have been so good over the past month has been their perimeter defense, which is spearheaded by Berry, Pinson and Jackson. Berry has been masterful slowing down opposing point guards all year long and scoring on the rangy 6'6 Pinson and 6'8 Jackson when they're locked in is a tall task for any guard or wing in America. And while the Zags are shooting better than 40% from downtown over their last 4 games, they haven't been forced to shoot over the perimeter length that the Tar Heels can trot out on the floor. The only reliable way in which the Zags can create some open shots from the outside will be off drive-and-kick action, since getting inside-out dishes will be hard to come by if Roy chooses not to double the post.
Key Factor(s): While North Carolina's affection for pushing the pace is well-documented, the Zags are more than comfortable playing a track meet style of the game. Williams-Goss is the perfect conductor for the Bulldogs fast-break, who, at 6'4 200 lbs., is a heavy load to slow down when he gets a head of steam in the open floor. His decision making is precise, whether he takes it to the tin himself, or finds a backcourt mate for a trailing 3 before the defense can get set. However, NWG may have limited opportunities to get open looks from early offense against a disciplined transition defensive team in UNC. This means the Zags will be forced to play in the half-court more than they're accustomed to, which actually might be a blessing in disguise given only Michigan and UCLA were more efficient offensively this season in half-court (non-transition) possessions.
On the flip side, the data indicates that the Zags are excellent at limiting fast-break opportunities for their opponents, which should be critical against the high-octane North Carolina fast-break. However, we just witnessed the Tar Heels have success running on one of the best transition defensive teams in the country in Oregon, indicating that it's virtually impossible to completely negate UNC's transition game - a big reason they currently hold claim to the nation's 7th most efficient offense. However, a sneaky statistic that continues to leave a sour taste in my mouth is the Tar Heels' 65th ranked half-court offensive efficiency, per Synergy. By power 6 conference standards, this translates to an average offensive squad if you can limit their high percentage looks in transition. As awesome as Jackson and Berry have been this year, they are certainly streaky scorers who are prone to poor shot selection at times. If the Zags can master the tough balance of getting back on defense without completely ignoring the offensive glass, they will take away the most efficient part of North Carolina's offensive attack.
Final Predictions: In many ways, these two squads are mirror images of each other, specifically in their stylistic tendencies and overall roster composition, which features no shortage of interior size. Both teams appear to be equipped to slow down what the other does best, meaning points may be relatively tough to come by (I like the under a lot). I give the edge to the Zags for one reason, which is summed up best by three simple letters - NWG. Williams-Goss has been at his best every time the Zags have had their backs against the wall and I think he'll make a few more big plays down the stretch than the Tar Heel adversaries of Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, securing the first ever national title for Gonzaga nation [making my colleague Jim Root a very rich man].
SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga +1.5
O/U Pick: Under 153.5