GLENDALE, Ariz. - On the off day between the Final Four semifinals and Monday night's NCAA championship game, there was quite a bit of chatter about the David vs. Goliath storyline surrounding the season’s final contest. That was just fine with Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins. “I think we all know what happened at the end of that story,” he said
Yes, we do. The problem is, we don’t know which team in this game is David and which is Goliath. I mean, if a team goes 371 and wins its games by an average margin of 21.9 points, how in the world can we call it an underdog?
On the other hand, Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference and has never reached the Final Four, much less won the whole thing. North Carolina is a card-carrying member of the Giants’ Club. This will be the Tar Heels’ 11th national championship game. As a program, they’ve won five. As a coach, Roy Williams has won two, and this is his sixth championship game and ninth Final Four. North Carolina came within a whisker of winning the title last year. If this team isn’t Goliath, who is?
Unfortunately, that’s how it goes with storylines sometimes. Labels are too convenient. If you go from the start of the season to now, it’s easy to conclude that these have been the best two teams in college basketball. How fitting that they will bring down the curtain together on Monday night?
Alas, only one team can win-and that team will be Gonzaga. Here are four reasons why:
1. Joel Berry isn’t right
There was a lot of attention on Berry’s balky ankles last week, but he was having an awful NCAA tournament prior to that. Then he was really, really bad in Saturday’s win over Oregon, when he went 2 for 14 from the field and only had two assists. Berry missed all six of his two-point attempts against the Ducks, marking the third game in the tournament in which he failed to convert a two-point basket. It is a testament to this team’s talent, depth and coaching that it is even playing for the championship with such poor production from its most important player.
Now, after Berry’s worst game of the tournament, he has just 48 hours to regroup. That simply isn’t enough.
Compare that with Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who played his best game of the tourney against South Carolina, scoring 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting. That was the first time in the tournament when Willliams-Goss shot better than 40%. You could see his confidence with every dribble.
During almost every game it has played this season, North Carolina has either had an advantage at the point guard spot or was at least evenly matched. That will not be the case Monday night. And that's a problem.
2. Gonzaga can match North Carolina’s frontcourt
It was so appropriate that the Tar Heels sealed Saturday’s win over Oregon with two offensive rebounds off missed free throws. That has been their calling card all season. North Carolina ranks No. 1 nationally in offensive rebound percentage, having grabbed a whopping 42% of its misses. That is due not just to the Tar Heels’ size and speed, but especially their depth. The Heels’ big men attack opponents in waves, and they know what their identity is.
Gonzaga, however, is one of the few teams in the country that can match North Carolina in size and depth. Not only do the Zags feature the mountainous, bearded wonder that is Przemek Karnowski, they likewise have three other big men who can body up with the Heels-6’9” junior Johnathan Williams, 7’0” freshman Zach Collins and 6’10” freshman Killian Tillie.
And it’s not like this team gets worse when Mark Few goes to his bench, either. Collins was huge in Saturday’s win over South Carolina, posting his first career double-double while setting career highs in rebounds (13) and blocks (6). Tillie was inserted into the game late, and despite the enormous pressure he hit the two free throws that sealed the win.
I’m not saying Gonzaga is going to dominate the glass. But if the Zags’ bigs can at least play the Heels’ bigs even, then it will negate North Carolina’s biggest advantage. And that’s, well, big.
3. Gonzaga’s defense is awesome
This is still being missed by a lot of people. For all the chatter about South Carolina’s air-tight defense, it was the Zags, not the Gamecocks, who led the nation this season in defensive efficiency. (South Carolina was second, but you get the point.) As I wrote last week, Gonzaga's numbers in the NCAA tournament have been even better on the defensive end. Its field goal percentage defense of 34.6 is tops in the tourney. On Saturday night, the Zags held the Gamecocks to 38% shooting, had eight blocks and out-rebounded them by five.
This is important because defense is the one area of the game that is not subjected to slumps. Gonzaga doesn’t necessarily have the quickest perimeter corps, but its overall size, cohesion and rim protection make this team extremely tough to score on. And even though Karnowski and Collins battled foul trouble in the second half against South Carolina, they still managed to contest drivers aggressively without fouling out. They will need to do the same Monday night-and I think they will.
4. Gonzaga has the slingshot
Okay, okay, so maybe Gonzaga is kinda sorta the David in this whole scenario. After all, let’s not forget that despite their dominance all season, many people doubted whether the Bulldogs were really of championship mettle-that despite having all this talent, the West Coast Conference did not imbue them with the mental toughness required to win a title.
The Zags looked tight and worried during their first two games, nearly blowing a 22-point lead against Northwestern in the second round. Yet, in the Sweet 16 they passed the brutal test posed by West Virginia. It was a sloppy game, and the Zags once again did not shoot well. Yet, they defended, scrapped, and somehow found a way to advance. That’s what tough teams do.
Having cleared that hurdle, Gonzaga played its finest game of the tournament while obliterating a really good Xavier team by 24 points to reach its first Final Four. The Zags were even better against South Carolina.
Their confidence and comfort level have been cresting for some time. In the first three games of the tournament, Gonzaga averaged 69 points, shot 29% from three and had 25 assists to 39 turnovers. In their last two games, the Bulldogs have averaged 80 points on 49% three-point shooting, and they have 30 assists to 22 turnovers. This is a really good team playing its best at the very best time of year. That is a great frame of mind to bring into an NCAA championship game.
Yes, North Carolina has a mission of its own, having lost last year’s final in such heartbreaking fashion. This is a very evenly matched game between two very good teams. But only one can walk away with the trophy. It says here that one team will be Gonzaga. It doesn’t really matter if people think the Zags are a David or a Goliath, or somewhere in between. The only thing that matters is what happens at the end of the story.