#1 GONZAGA (37-1) vs. #1 NORTH CAROLINA (32-7)
Site: University of Phoenix Stadium.
Time: 6:20 p.m.
TV/radio: KLAS-8; KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM).
Series: Tied 1-1.
How they got here: The top seeds of the West (Gonzaga) and South (North Carolina) regions both had close calls in advancing to the championship, with the Zags being pushed most by West Virginia in the Sweet 16 (61-58 final) and the Tar Heels escaping Kentucky (75-73) in the Elite Eight.
Guard: Two of the nation’s best lead guards have made the final, but it won’t be easy for North Carolina junior Joel Berry II and his two sore ankles to check Gonzaga junior Nigel-Williams Goss, three inches taller and yet also playing on a tweaked ankle. Berry shot just 2-of-14 in a semifinal against Oregon while Williams-Goss was scoring a game-high 23 against South Carolina. Edge: Gonzaga.
Guard: Theo Pinson is a 6-6 wing for the Tar Heels who rebounds at a high rate and, much like he did in shutting down Kentucky star De’Aaron Fox in the Elite Eight, could put the clamps on a player like Gonzaga sophomore Josh Perkins. But the guess here is we see Pinson on Williams-Goss to start so as to protect the hobbling Berry. Edge: North Carolina.
Forward: The game’s best one-on-one duel could fall here, where Justin Jackson as arguably the nation’s toughest matchup will likely be guarded by Gonzaga junior Johnathan Williams, who did a terrific job on SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell from South Carolina on Saturday. But in the junior Jackson, you have the sort of long, hybrid slasher as a point-forward that NBA scouts covet. Edge North Carolina.
Forward: Down low, where two really big men roam, Przemek Karnowski (7-1, 300 pounds) of Gonzaga will face Kennedy Meeks (6-10, 260). The latter has dominated in March and was at his best Saturday, when he went for 25 points and 14 rebounds against an Oregon side that had no answer for him. Karnowski (12.3 ppg) eats space but is more nimble than his frame suggests. Edge: North Carolina.
Forward: The Tar Heels need a much better Isaiah Hicks than the one we saw against Oregon — 1-of-12 shooting in 20 minutes. He could oppose senior Jordan Mathews, who can stretch defenders and has made 15 3-pointers in five NCAA games for Gonzaga. Hicks, though, can be a beast on the boards, something that could give the smaller Mathews trouble. EDGE: North Carolina.
Bench: One of the game’s best NBA prospects is Bishop Gorman High alum and Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins, a 7-footer who had his first college double-double (14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks) against South Carolina. Tony Bradley is a 6-11 freshman for North Carolina who adds more rebounding skill and Luke Maye a sophomore forward who introduced himself to the nation last week with a fairly enormous game-winner (see Kentucky). Edge: Gonzaga.
Could prove the difference: North Carolina on the offensive boards. Look no further than those final seconds against Oregon, when the Tar Heels rebounded missed free-throws twice to keep the Ducks from getting a last shot in a one-point game. The nation’s best offensive rebounding team will now face its second-best defensive rebounding side in Gonzaga, but also one which allowed 13 offensive boards to South Carolina in the semifinals. If the Zags can’t keep North Carolina off the glass, they probably can’t win.
Possible unsung hero: Collins. His breakout game in the semifinals has been the talk of the Final Four, and most now assume the center will opt the leave school for the NBA draft. If he plays as well Monday against the size and experience of the Tar Heels, that choice will likely become a foregone conclusion and Gonzaga will likely be crowned national champs.
Did you know?: Collins became just the third player in Final Four history to score at least 10 points, grab at least 10 rebounds and block at least five shots in a game. The other two — Danny Manning and Anthony Davis.
Key stat: North Carolina’s rebound margin (12.7 average) is the highest in school history.
Quote to note: “It might be perceived as David vs. Goliath, but when you start watching them, it’s not that much difference. I believe throughout the course of the season, they did a better job than anyone. I have a great deal of respect — and fear — for them. They are really good.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Bottom line: This has the makings of a classic that could be decided with the dirty work inside. Second-chance points are incredibly important when teams are this evenly matched, and nobody attacks the glass like North Carolina. The Tar Heels are relentless.
Prediction: North Carolina 78, Gonzaga 75.