Mid-Major Madness has made it all the way to the end, and what an ending it will be.
1 seeds North Carolina Tar Heels (32-7) and Gonzaga Bulldogs (38-1) will face off Monday night in Phoenix for all the spoils. They’re two powerhouse programs that couldn’t be more different, both now and historically.
Gonzaga advanced to its first Final Four this season, while no team has been to more than North Carolina, who has gone 20 times. This is the Tar Heels’ 11th trip to the title game. They’re arguably the greatest program in college basketball history. Relatively speaking, Gonzaga is an up-and-comer.
But this season, the Bulldogs are the top dog.
Ranked No. 1 in KenPom since mid-January, the Zags have been the best team in college basketball this year. Mark Few’s team plays defense better than anybody in America, holding opponents to a paltry 0.868 points per possession. The cohesive team defense limits good looks at the basket both inside and out.
That defense will be tested by a Tar Heel squad that can score as well as anyone.
In 39 games this season, the Tar Heels have failed to hit 80 points on just 13 occasions. They’ve crested 90 in 17 games and have reached triple digits six times. Junior forward Justin Jackson leads the way with 18.6 points per game. Point guard Joel Berry II (14.5 ppg, 3.6 apg), a Cousy Award finalist, makes the offense go, but has been hampered by an ankle injury and did not practice on Sunday.
He’ll face off against another Cousy Award finalist in Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss (16.9 ppg, 4.7 apg). And while Gonzaga’s got a great backcourt, as always, it’s the frontcourt where it really stands tall. Literally.
Przemek Karnowski (12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award finalist, and Zach Collins (10 ppg, 5.9 rpg), a McDonald’s all-American who comes off the bench, are dominant seven-footers. Their complimentary skill sets will cause trouble for North Carolina’s frontcourt, which will have to bruise inside with Karnowski while worrying about Collins’ mobility away from the basket.
These two squads have met before in the NCAA Tournament. As a 4 seed, Gonzaga lost to top seed UNC, 90-77, in the 2009 Sweet Sixteen. The Tar Heels won the title that year.
Two years earlier, Gonzaga took down No. 2 North Carolina in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
North Carolina was an elite team in both of those previous meetings, just as the Tar Heels are now. But unlike in the previous meetings, Gonzaga’s elite too.