And then there were two … Two teams that celebrated Saturday night in Phoenix. Two teams that will play for the grand prize Monday. Two No. 1 seeds. Two teams that expected to be here, but had to work tremendously hard to arrive.
There were two teams that reigned supreme in Saturday’s national semifinals, and two teams that did so in the paint against smaller opposition. North Carolina did so on the offensive glass, converting 17 of its own misses into 19 second-chance points and one celebratory hurl of the ball up toward the University of Phoenix stadium roof. Gonzaga did so more mechanically, working the ball inside to Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins and exploiting South Carolina’s subsequent adaptations, or lack thereof.
Size was the story of the Final Four, and will again hog the narrative heading into Monday’s national championship game (9:20 p.m. ET, CBS).
But when two behemoths meet; when two four-man frontcourt rotations meet; when eight big men 6-foot-8 or taller and 1,935 pounds of human battle in the same confined area, four at a time, superior height and superior girth become simply height and girth. Kennedy Meeks and Karnowski, the two senior stars? They cancel each other out. Tony Bradley and Collins, the two talented freshmen off the bench? They could neutralize each other.
North Carolina has bombarded the offensive glass against other massive frontcourts this season — it rebounded 39 percent of its misses against Louisville and 46 percent against Florida State — but it hasn’t seen a team with the combination of length, strength and depth possessed by Gonzaga. The Zags aren’t an outstanding defensive rebounding team statistically, but in three games against St. Mary’s, the best offensive rebounding team in the West Coast Conference, the Zags reeled in over 75 percent of the Gaels’ misses. They struggled against Florida and Arizona in November and December, but less than half of the offensive rebounds they conceded in those games were to big men.
Karnowski, Collins and Johnathan Williams won’t cave under pressure from Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and company. The Tar Heels’ assaults on the backboards won’t necessarily prove fruitful. Size won’t automatically win the day, because at the four and the five, the Tar Heels actually have less of it than their opponents.
But size does still matter. And it might be the thing that gives North Carolina a slight advantage Monday night.
That’s because, in addition to the eight aforementioned players 6-foot-8 or taller, there’s a ninth. His name is Justin Jackson. He’ll be arguably the best talent on the floor. And he’ll have a 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-3 player guarding him.
Gonzaga has seen plenty of skilled wing players this season, but it hasn’t seen many, if any, as tall as Jackson. The only somewhat viable comparisons are Florida’s Devin Robinson, who scored 18 points against the Zags, and Northwestern’s Vic Law, who also had 18.
Jackson presents a unique challenge to a Gonzaga team that always plays three guards, but doesn’t have one taller than 6-foot-4. Mark Few could assign Jackson to Jordan Mathews, Silas Melson, Josh Perkins or even Nigel Williams-Goss. Any of the four would be giving up at least four inches.
That deficit could matter on the offensive glass, as could the athleticism of 6-foot-6 do-it-all guard Theo Pinson, but it’s more so a problem for Gonzaga’s first-shot defense. That first-shot defense has been the best in college basketball all season, but Jackson is the type of player who could deflate it with several darts from beyond the arc. He’s shooting 42 percent from deep in the tournament, and hit three 3s during a second-half flurry on Saturday that helped Carolina temporarily pull away from Oregon.
Jackson moves like a two-guard at the height of a four, which makes him an extremely difficult cover. He shoots over smaller defenders on the perimeter, but also has ridiculous range on a floater that he’ll unleash off the dribble from anywhere within 18 feet of the rim. Provided there’s no lower-body contact, those shots might as well be uncontested if Jackson is being guarded by anybody 6-foot-5 or shorter.
Here’s a good look at Jackson’s offensive skill set, which was on full display in his 22-point performance against Oregon:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 2, 2017
Even when Jackson drew 6-foot-7 forward Dillon Brooks, he was able to score over him. When he found a smaller guard, like 6-foot-3 Casey Benson, in front of him, Jackson shot over that guard like he wasn’t even there:
Gonzaga has had all kinds of success limiting star players over the past five games. It restricted Xavier’s Trevon Blueitt to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting in the Elite Eight and held South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell to 15 — more than 10 points below his tournament average — on 4-of-12 shooting Saturday.
Jackson, however, poses a new threat. Whoever is tasked with dealing with him will likely try to get into his legs and nudge him out of his rhythm on the perimeter. That’s easier said than done, though.
North Carolina is a top-10 offensive team because of its offensive rebounding, not solely because of Jackson or because of its shooting, but Jackson and his shooting could hold the key to the Tar Heels’ path around the nation’s best defense.
In short, North Carolina will likely have to do at least one of two things to match Gonzaga’s scoring. It has to either rebound its own misses like it usually does, even against Gonzaga’s great front line, or use its length in another way: To shoot over that stifling Gonzaga defense. If it does neither, it will need an exceptional defensive performance of its own. If it does both, the Zags will have a difficult time keeping pace.
More Final Four coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Here’s the most crucial aspect of Monday’s UNC-Gonzaga title game
• Phil Knight, Nike have ‘an interest’ in Lonzo Ball, but $1 billion is ‘a little steep’
• How Grant Hill went from having ‘no clue’ to calling the Final Four
• Gonzaga coach, 54, celebrates win with handstand