If we’ve learned nothing else during the last three weeks, it’s obvious the best two teams in college basketball are playing for the national championship.
North Carolina and Villanova each steam rolled over five opponents in the NCAA tournament to reach tonight’s title game, excelling on both ends of the court. The Tar Heels have won by an average margin of 16 points. Their smallest margin of victory is 14 points in the East regional final against Notre Dame.
The Wildcats have won by an average of 24 points per game, a number inflated by their Final Four record 44-point rout against Oklahoma. Their only close call was a five-point win over No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the South Regional final.
Nova is No. 1 in the KenPom ratings and UNC is No. 2. The Heels have the nation’s most efficient offense and the Wildcats are close behind.
Here are three things to watch when the game tips at 9:19 Eastern in NRG Stadium (TBS).
Can Villanova (Ochefu) slow down North Carolina’s frontcourt?
In the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels are 131 of 226 on 2-point field goals (58 percent) and have snagged 15 offensive rebounds per game. All-American forward Brice Johnson is playing on a supreme level (20 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and UNC’s three other post players have chipped in consistently. Kennedy Meeks, who two months ago briefly lost his starting role, had 15 points on 7 of 9 shooting with five offensive rebounds in UNC’s 83-66 win over Syracuse in the national semifinal. The Tar Heels pummeled Cuse’s long-armed zone for 50 points in the paint.
On the season, Villanova is a top-50 unit defending inside-the-arc. Although the Wildcats are playing fantastic defense in the NCAA tournament, holding four of five opponents to less than one point per possession, they’ve given up baskets inside. Iowa shot 56 percent on 2-pointers. Kansas shot 67 percent.
UNC puts a ton of pressure on opposing frontcourts through its scheme and relentless nature attacking the basket and the boards.
Villanova’s 6-11 center Daniel Ochefu has been a tremendous rim protector during the NCAA tournament. With him, the Cats are great on defense. Without him, they’re awful.
According to data provided by clinchbasketball.com, he was on the floor for 185 possessions during the last four NCAA tournament games and opponents scored 0.88 points per trip - or equal to the best defensive team in the nation in the regular season. He was on the bench for 69 possessions and opponents scored 1.20 points per trip - which would’ve been the worst in college basketball.
Carolina - specifically Johnson - is certain to attack Ochefu early and often. Defending without fouling must be his top priority. He’s averaged 28.5 minutes the last four games. Jay Wright needs at least that many from his senior big man tonight.
What impact does Mikal Bridges make on the game?
Widely considered Villanova’s best pro prospect, the athletic 6-7 forward is 11 of 16 from the floor during the NCAA tournament and coming off a solid 11-point effort in 23 minutes against Oklahoma.
The Wildcats have scored 1.33 points per possession in the tournament and when he’s been on the floor they’ve flourished. His length and mobility makes him a valuable piece of Nova’s ¾ court zone press. Also worth noting, Villanova is 6-0 when Bridges scores in double figures, which he’s done twice in March Madness. He’s shot 71 percent this season.
The freshman also makes plays like this one to energize the Villanova fans.
Who wins the backcourt matchup?
Although small forward Josh Hart led Villanova with 24 points and the UNC frontcourt did what it’s been doing in the national semifinals.
The backcourt matchup is equally compelling.
Villanova freshman Jalen Brunson hasn’t scored in double figures the last three games. He could spark the Cats. Does UNC senior Marcus Paige shoot 3s like the first half against Syracuse (0-3) or the second half (3-4)?
Ryan Arcidiacono is the Wildcats’ best perimeter defender. Which UNC guard does he defend? Joel Berry, a 6-foot sophomore, is one of the most improved players in the nation this season and critical to their success as North Carolina Central coach Levelle Moton pointed out while watching the Tar Heels play Syracuse.
Berry had 10 assists and seven rebounds against the Orange. He’s a strong driver and reliable 3-point shooter (64 made, 37 percent) who has developed into a terrific defender as well.
Berry, Paige and small forward Justin Jackson shared the court for 162 possessions during the last four games. UNC scored 1.35 points per possession during that span and held opponents to 1.08.
Prediction: North Carolina 79-72.