March Madness became April Madness this past Saturday with two games that came down to the wire during the Final Four. The Gonzaga Bulldogs and the North Carolina Tar Heels will put a wrap on the 2016-17 college basketball season with Monday night’s National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona with a 9:20 p.m. ET tip-off. Incredibly, this is only the eighth time that two #1 seeds have played in the National Championship Game. North Carolina is favored by 1.5 points with a total of 153.5 points.
Skeptics will point to Gonzaga’s run to the National Championship Game and criticize the fact that the Bulldogs only played the highest possible seed in two of their four games after the first round. Mark Few’s team has answered the bell each and every time and finds itself playing for a title for the first time in program history. The Bulldogs are 37-1 this season with a 23-10-2 record against the spread. North Carolina is hoping to avenge last year’s last-second loss to Villanova for their 33rd win of the season. The Tar Heels are 32-7 with a 19-17-2 record against the number. UNC is vying for its sixth NCAA Tournament title, with the most recent one coming back in 2009.
The Bulldogs may have benefitted from a couple of upsets en route to the National Championship game, but everybody seems to be a live dog in some respects in March Madness. Sure, the Bulldogs played the #11 Xavier Musketeers in the Elite Eight and the #7 South Carolina Gamecocks in the Final Four instead of the #2 Arizona Wildcats and the #1 Villanova Wildcats in those respective rounds, but the Bulldogs can only play the teams that advance. Say what you want about the schedule, but Gonzaga has only lost one of its 38 games to this point and deserves to be in this spot. Mark Few talked about his team’s tenacity and toughness throughout the tournament and they’ve done a great job in late-game situations even though it’s hard to say that the team was battle-tested entering the field of 68.
Star players show up in the big moments and Gonzaga’s have done that to this point in the NCAA Tournament. Nigel Williams-Goss is the one that has stepped up the most. The junior struggled in the first three games of the tournament, but he’s had 23 points in each of the last two games and was 9-of-16 from the field against South Carolina with six assists against three turnovers. Williams-Goss is battling a sprained ankle that he rolled in the win over South Carolina, so we’ll have to see what state he’s in for Monday’s game. Przemek Karnowski left the game for a while after getting inadvertently poked in the eye. He had 13 points in just 25 minutes. While the eye injury is cause for concern, the fact that the 300-pounder was limited from a playing time standpoint could be a blessing in disguise going up against a North Carolina team that is extremely strong in the frontcourt. Freshman forward Zach Collins needs to grow into his frame a little bit more, but the seven-footer had six blocks and 13 rebounds against South Carolina. We’ll have to see if Few uses the freshman more frequently in this game with so much strength on the inside for the Tar Heels. Collins does have some issues playing defense without fouling, but he managed 23 minutes and had 14 points against the Gamecocks.
The Tar Heels needed a tremendous performance from Kennedy Meeks in order to advance, but that’s the beauty of having a program like North Carolina’s. There is a ton of talent and a lot of guys capable of playing the role of hero. This time, it was Meeks, who had 25 points and 14 rebounds on 11-of-13 shooting. We knew that UNC’s offensive rebounding prowess was going to come to the forefront in this tournament and it most certainly has. The Tar Heels are in the National Championship Game for the 11th time and sixth time under head coach Roy Williams. With last year’s devastating loss still very fresh in the minds of Williams and his players, it has to feel like things have lined up perfectly to avenge that brutal defeat and cut down the nets after having the ladder pulled out from under them last season. Like the Williams-Goss ankle problem for Gonzaga, the Tar Heels have been dealing with their own. Joel Berry II just doesn’t look right and that was painfully clear against Oregon with his 2-of-14 performance from the field. It’s kind of surprising that the Tar Heels and Ducks were able to put up so many points, as they combined to go 47-of-126 from the field. Controlling the pace will be something that North Carolina will look to do against Gonzaga because of the massive athleticism advantage that the favorite brings to the table.
Kennedy Meeks’s 25 points and 14 rebounds was one of the top Final Four performances in recent memory. Justin Jackson’s 22 points got a bit overlooked, but the Tar Heels needed every one of those buckets. Isaiah Hicks was 1-of-12 from the floor with just two points. As mentioned, Joel Berry II looked terrible on his barking ankle. The Tar Heels only got nine bench points. But, what the Tar Heels did do effectively was limit Dillon Brooks, who was 2-of-11 from the floor. North Carolina’s offensive presence and rebounding skill stands out, but the Tar Heels defense has been pretty solid this season as well. It’s hard to say that about a 77-76 game, but Brooks and Tyler Dorsey were both held in check. It’s a sound strategy at this time of year to take away the best players and force somebody else to beat you. If North Carolina can do that again, they’ll be cutting down the nets in Glendale.
College Basketball Free Pick: North Carolina Tar Heels -1.5
The Gonzaga Bulldogs were ready for South Carolina’s defense and had a huge first half against the Gamecocks. There’s no way to get ready for North Carolina’s athleticism. Even with non-conference games against Iowa State and Arizona, the Bulldogs haven’t seen anything quite like this all year. The Tar Heels have seen a lot of good teams and nothing really stands out above the rest about Gonzaga. The weird sightlines and the shooting backdrops didn’t seem to affect either team. Gonzaga needs to play a fairly low-scoring game to have success here, but that seems unlikely because North Carolina should dictate the tempo and be able to use its team speed to get Gonzaga running up and down the floor. Expect the Tar Heels to cut down the nets on Monday night.