Gonzaga-North Carolina: Matchups that could make difference

Published 12:49 am Monday, April 3, 2017

GLENDALE, Ariz. — North Carolina and Gonzaga are separated by 2,567 miles and five NCAA men’s basketball national titles.

The distance between the two campuses is the farthest for NCAA Tournament finalists since 1971, when UCLA faced Villanova, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The last time a school with as many as five NCAA championships faced a team looking for its first in the final was 2006, when Florida broke through against UCLA.

Otherwise, the Tar Heels and Gonzaga are not so different heading into Monday’s NCAA Tournament championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“We’re the same but different,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said Sunday. “We both like to go inside out. I think they’ve probably got some guys that can get their own shot a little easier than we can.”

There will be big bodies banging on inside and some mixing and matching on the perimeter. Key matchups that could determine the national championship game:


Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss vs. North Carolina point guard Joel Berry II

Williams-Goss is the West Coast Conference player of the year and probably the Bulldogs’ best player. The 6-foot-3 junior was terrific in Saturday’s victory against South Carolina, with 23 points (9-for-16 shooting), five rebounds and six assists.

Berry is not North Carolina’s best player, that’s Justin Jackson, but he might be the most important Tar Heel. North Carolina’s parts fit much better when Berry is running the show. He has been playing on two sore ankles, though he would not use that as an excuse for shooting 2 for 14 in the semifinal victory against Oregon. Berry is a solid defender, but at 6 feet tall he gives up size and power to Williams-Goss.

Against Kentucky, North Carolina coach Roy Williams often used 6-foot-6 Theo Pinson on star point guard De’Aaron Fox, moving Berry to one of Kentucky’s spot-up shooters. That could be the strategy against Williams-Goss as well.


North Carolina’s offensive rebounding vs. Gonzaga’s defensive rebounding

The Tar Heels are the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country at 15.77 per game and they lead in rebounding margin overall (12.7). Against Oregon, it was offensive rebounds by Kennedy Meeks and Pinson on two missed free throws in the closing seconds that sealed the win.

The Bulldogs are No. 2 in the country in defensive rebounding at 30.84 per game and 11th in rebounding margin (7.2), but they allowed 13 offensive rebounds against South Carolina in the semifinals. That went a long way to the Gamecocks being able to stay in a game when they shot 38 percent from the field

North Carolina and Gonzaga both have good size and length, so it will come down to technique and effort. As North Carolina showed against Oregon, the Tar Heels rarely get beat in those areas.


Big men battle

Gonzaga has a couple of 7-footers in Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, who comes off the bench. Few played them together a lot against South Carolina. Expect more of that against North Carolina. Unlike so many teams in college basketball these days that line up with three or four guards, North Carolina gives a traditional look with 6-10, 260-pound (listed) Kennedy Meeks in the middle and 6-9 Isaiah Hicks at power forward. The Tar Heels also mix in 6-11 freshman Tony Bradley.

Meeks has been a terror in the tournament and dominated against Oregon, with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Hicks has been slumping. He was 1 for 12 against the Ducks.

Karnowski is a mountain at 7-1 and 300 pounds, but with soft hands and quick feet.

Collins, a freshman, might have the most pro potential of any player in the championship game, and is coming off his first double-double of the season (14 points and 13 rebounds).


Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams vs. North Carolina forward Justin Jackson

Two long and rangy forwards.

The 6-8 Jackson is the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, averaging 18.3 points per game. He is a slasher who has improved as a 3-point shooter (38.2 percent this season).

Williams is 6-9 and he gave South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell fits in the semifinals. Jackson is a much different player, but Williams is a good athletic matchup. He averages 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.