GLENDALE, Ariz. – Gonzaga and North Carolina. In some ways the perfect date for the national championship game, in other ways the odd couple.
North Carolina is from Tobacco Road, Gonzaga from the foothills of the Rockies, 2,567 miles apart. The last championship pairing of such distance was Villanova and UCLA in 1971.
North Carolina is playing in its 11th national championship basketball game, hoping for its sixth title – not to mention its 48th overall, between soccer, lacrosse and whatnot. Gonzaga seeks its first national championship in any sport.
In 1995, Gonzaga played in the NCAA tournament for the first time. That year was appearance No. 29 for North Carolina.
Roy Williams is the most famous person born in Marion, North Carolina, population just under 8,000. Mark Few is the most famous native son of Creswell, Oregon, population 5,000 and change. “You just take off on your bike and go anywhere,” he said of his childhood there. “You didn’t have to tell anybody. It was Mayberry.”
Speaking of Mayberry, North Carolina’s best-known alumnus might be Andy Griffith. Gonzaga’s would be Bing Crosby.
Unless the category is basketball, and then it’s Michael Jordan and John Stockton. Fellow Dream Teamers.
Williams has won 79 percent of his games – 815-216 – which makes him No. 2 on the active list of coaches with at least five years of experience.
The only man he trails? Mark Few, who is at 81.7 with his 503-112.
This is the 20th time in the last 44 years a team from the state of North Carolina is playing in the national championship game.
This is the first time since 1958 that a team from the state of Washington is there. Seattle.
Both teams are No. 1 seeds. This is only the eighth time that’s happened in the 39-year history of tournament seeding. North Carolina has been in three. The Tar Heels won them all.
North Carolina has Rameses the Ram. Gonzaga has Spike the Bulldog.
Williams loves to play golf, and sprinkles his stories with references of the sport. Talking about what the past two seasons have met to him, for instance.
“These two teams have really been therapeutic for me. They’ve really made me feel good about what I’m doing. When I was 19, 6:30, 7 Saturday morning, I was always the guy calling everybody about meeting at the golf course at what time. I’m the guy that sets up all the golf trips right now.
“So it’s always been me to try to get groups of people to do things and have fun with it. And these two teams have really been a lot of fun.”
Few loves to fish, and often makes outdoor references, such as the time last fall when he took his team into the wilderness for some bonding, including a night-time hike that the players still talk about in terror.
“Just amazing that they would be so frightful of being out in God’s country, in the dark where there’s absolutely nothing that could do anything to them, but they have no issues wandering the streets of south Chicago or Los Angeles at night.
“The night walk was basically maybe 25 yards down to the lake, and it’s being described as this epic journey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And it was on a nice kind of groomed dirt trail, so yeah, not my usual outdoor experience. But it helped. The unwritten story for this team is just how they assimilated so quickly with so many new faces, and that little 48 hours really, truly helped us.”
Of the nine North Carolina players who saw action Saturday, four are from in-state, three more from nearby states. The eight Gonzaga players who saw action Saturday are scattered over six states – none from Washington – plus Poland and France.
North Carolina was fourth in the nation in attendance this season averaging 18.087, filling up Smith Center, which was named after coaching legend Dean Smith.
Gonzaga was 89th in the nation in attendance this season averaging 6,000, filling up McCarthey Athletic Center, which was named after two brothers who graduated from the school in English and literature and put up the money.
Both teams scored 77 points Saturday. The last Final Four that saw identical winning scores in the semifinals was 1991. Williams’ first Final Four, by the way. Few had just gotten his first full-time college assistant’s job that year.
Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament opponents are shooting 34.6 percent, the lowest for a championship game participant in four years. North Carolina shot 36.6 against Oregon. That’s the lowest for a Tar Heels’ NCAA tournament victory since 1967.
If North Carolina wins, it will be 19th national championship in the past 20 years for a school from the Eastern time zone.
If Gonzaga wins, it will be the first national championship for the Pacific time zone since Arizona in 1997.
North Carolina is No. 1 in the nation in rebound margin, and that could be important Monday night. Gonzaga is No. 2 in the nation in field goal percentage defense, and that could be, too.
North Carolina beat Gonzaga 98-77 in the 2009 Sweet 16 in Memphis. Two night before the game, both coaching staffs had gone out together one night to a Mississippi casino and played craps. Both Williams and Few lost. Gonzaga beat North Carolina 82-74 in the 2006 pre-season NIT. Those are their only two meetings, and only joint casino excursion.
North Carolina has seven losses. The last national champion with seven defeats was Michigan State in 2000.
Gonzaga has one defeat. The last one-loss national champion was North Carolina State, 43 years ago.
Williams has made one college head coaching move in is life, from Kansas to his alma mater.
Few has made none, spending a career at Gonzaga. “You probably don’t want to admit it, but at least in my case, you end up being more like your parents than you even think,” he said the other day. “My dad was 54 years in the same church. I think it’s a record. Usually those pastors move around like every five or six years. Fifty-four years at the same little church, with a congregation of 100, 125 people.
“So I think that’s probably instilled in my brain and soul and something I didn’t even realize at the time. Why mess with happy.”
One of these two is going to be happy Monday night. But not both.