GLENDALE, ARIZ. – North Carolina junior Justin Jackson could only laugh when he was asked about how much being in a second consecutive NCAA title game is an advantage for his team.
“I think this is maybe like the 50th time we’ve kind of answered a question about that,” the ACC Player of the Year said. “At the end of the day, it’s a different team. … Gonzaga is a totally different team than Villanova was.”
Actually, he’s right. The matchup of Gonzaga and North Carolina on Monday night appears a lot more evenly matched than the one from the 2016 championship game.
“They’re very similar to us,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “They play two [true] post players. They’ve got three players on the perimeter. Any of them can be the point. They believe in running. They believe in getting the ball inside. They change their defenses a little but not much. They’re mostly a man-to-man team. So we’re very similar.”
After talk about how there were no real Cinderellas, how the ACC bombed early in the Big Dance and how the defending champion Wildcats and others fell victim to poor seeding dominated the narrative of March Madness — surprise, surprise — the focus now is on the two most complete teams in college basketball meeting to decide it all.
One team plays in a mid-major conference, the other in arguably the top major conference. But don’t tell Gonzaga coach Mark Few that his West Coast Conference squad is the little engine that could trying to race against the big, powerful blue-blood train.
“We’re not at the level of tradition of North Carolina or Duke or Kentucky,” Few said Sunday. “But at the same time, I think we do feel we’ve been a national entity for quite some time.”
And the Bulldogs are just as well-rounded as the Tar Heels, from their experienced perimeters to their tall and talented frontcourts and loaded benches. They both have it all.
You want All-Americas? Gonzaga has junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who had 23 points in Saturday’s 77-73 victory over South Carolina. North Carolina has Jackson, who scored 22 points in a 77-76 victory over Oregon in the other national semifinal.
You want steady guards? Williams-Goss is the floor leader for the Zags. But they complement him with ball handlers and shooters Josh Perkins, Jordan Matthews and Silas Melson. North Carolina’s floor leader is all-conference junior Joel Berry II, but he gets help from point guard Nate Britt and versatile Theo Pinson.
You want space-eating big men and future pros in the paint? North Carolina’s 6-10, 260-pound Kennedy Meeks had 25 points and 14 rebounds Saturday, including the game-winning offensive rebound in the closing seconds against Oregon. Isaiah Hicks (6-9, 242), Tony Bradley (6-11, 240) and Luke Maye (6-8, 235) can impact the game as well. The biggest player on the floor Monday will be 7-1, 300-pound Polish native Przemek Karnowski for Gonzaga. But his 7-foot freshman teammate Zach Collins might be the best NBA prospect playing Monday, which was evident with his 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks against South Carolina. Jonathan Williams was also the Zags’ top post scorer leading up to the Final Four.
“I can’t remember the last time we played a team with two true bigs who played the whole entire game,” Jackson said. “Our teams look a lot alike. As far as the programs, they’ve got a Hall of Fame coach. We’ve got a Hall of Fame coach. We’ve got some great players on our team. They’ve got some great players. The program histories, ours has a few more Final Fours, but that’s not to take away from anything Gonzaga has done. They lost one game this year. So at the end of the day, it’s two great programs, two great histories, two great coaches, two great teams that are going to try to battle it out for that last trophy.”
But Few points out that one huge difference is Williams’ experience in games like these. Williams is playing in his sixth title game and vying for his third national championship, which would surpass his old UNC mentor and legend Dean Smith.
“He’s been in this game like 17 times and this is a first for me,” Few joked about one North Carolina advantage. “So definitely start with that. Probably end with that.”