It's a pair of No. 1 seeds vying for the national title as Gonzaga and North Carolina play on Monday night. Each team was put to its own tests on Saturday and each overcame them in somewhat the same way. The Tar Heels needed late rebounds to hold off the Oregon Ducks 77-76 while the Bulldogs got timely buckets late in their 77-73 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks. The spread for this one is pretty tight so there are several things to consider.
1. Size, size and more size
North Carolina's size ended up being the factor in outlasting Oregon on Saturday night when two late missed free throws were corralled by the Tar Heels. They have rebounded around 42 percent of their misses all season long because of their length and size. Kennedy Meeks (25 points, 14 rebounds) was huge in the win over Oregon, who got 16 rebounds from Jordan Bell and a combined 27 boards from the seven other Ducks that played. Gonzaga can match UNC’s size with Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins, Jonathan Williams and Killian Tillie down low. Karnowski has an array of moves and Collins flexed his muscle with several blocks on Saturday night. If Gonzaga can rebound with North Carolina, it will take away one of the Heels’ greatest strengths and advantages they have enjoyed all season.
Each team’s mindset is different entering the final game of the season. North Carolina has been here before and has used this season as motivation and fuel for erasing last year’s painful loss to Villanova on an improbable buzzer-beater. Gonzaga was more of an enigma coming in with so many new faces, but once this team came together it then became proving all the naysayers wrong. There are still those who aren’t willing to give the Bulldogs, who have lost just one game to this point and spent a good part of the season ranked No. 1, their due. But that hasn’t stopped this team from taking care of business and not letting the pressure or the burden of their program’s past get in the way. These Zags have won games in the NCAA Tournament in pretty much every fashion imaginable – blowing out teams or doing the little things necessary to win close ones – so they should be ready for whatever unfolds Monday night.
The hope is that everyone is at 100 percent for the final game of the season. But that’s not always the reality. For Gonzaga, Nigel Williams-Goss did turn his ankle in second half on Saturday, while Karnowski was smacked in the face and briefly had an issue with his eye. Both will play Monday night, but may not be completely healthy. That’s the case for North Carolina point guard Joel Barry II, who has been dealing with bad ankles since the first round of this NCAA Tournament. Berry has gutted it out, but he clearly was not at his best on Saturday, shooting just 2-for-14 from the field with two assists and two turnovers. Berry also will play, but if his shot’s not falling, he will have to look for other ways to be effective on offense and also hope is ankles don’t impact him too much on the other end of the floor.
4. Shining Star
Meeks has come up huge several times this Tournament for North Carolina, while Jackson has been his steady, productive self. Both will need to continue their level of play on Monday, especially if Berry continues to be limited by his ankles fellow starters Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson struggle to shoot the ball. Gonzaga was led by Williams-Goss (23 points, 6 assists) and Collins (14 points, 13 rebounds, 6 blocks) in its Final Four win over South Carolina, but will need others to get into the act as well. Which team’s stars have one more big game in them? For the Bulldogs, Williams will need to make his presence felt more on both ends after managing just seven points and two rebounds against the Gamecocks. The Tar Heels will need more contributions from starters not named Jackson and Meeks. Hicks in particular needs to find a way to get going early, as he’s scored just six points on 3-for-17 shooting with only three rebounds in the last two games.
In a best-case scenario, the referees won’t be heard from much at all, but with size and paint play such a key for both teams, it’s pretty apparent that the officiating will be a factor in this game. North Carolina isn’t afraid to go nine or 10 deep while Gonzaga pretty much relies on the same eight players every game. Foul trouble was a bit of an issue for the Tar Heels with 22 called against them vs. Oregon, but no one was in any real danger of fouling out. Gonzaga also was on the wrong end of the whistle (21 fouls vs. 14) against South Carolina with Josh Perkins fouling out and Collins and Karnowski both ending up with four. If the officials let both teams play, the Bulldogs could have the slight advantage whereas the Tar Heels would probably benefit a little if the game is called tighter. But even that is somewhat dependent on North Carolina making its free throws late, something the Heels did not do against the Ducks.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.