After all of the upsets, tight games and general madness, two teams are still dancing: Gonzaga and North Carolina.
Both of these squads are powerhouses. Here’s what happened on Saturday that could affect Monday night’s national championship bout.
Joel Berry doesn’t look 100 percent
Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks carried the load against Oregon, in part because Berry scuffled. The junior point guard went 2-for-14 against the Ducks – Berry is playing with two sprained ankles and didn’t show the explosion he typically does.Obviously, no team wants its star player to go 2-for-14. But there are further consequences for the go-go Tar Heels – what makes them so special is their combination of speed and physicality. When healthy, Berry is the engine of a lethal transition attack; he gives defenses (and camera operators) fits with how quickly he zooms up the court.
That element of North Carolina’s offense was mostly absent against Oregon. The Tar Heels are decent in the half-court; they’re incredible when they run. Roy Williams’ crew ranks 16th in adjusted tempo; Gonzaga ranks 77th.
Defensively, Berry was able to hide on Payton Pritchard or Casey Benson against Oregon, and he should be fine on Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins. Berry struggled with his outside shot on Saturday, but UNC hopes a few bum wheels won’t hinder his stroke in the national championship.
North Carolina survived Oregon despite a subpar game from Berry. It might not be so lucky against Gonzaga.
Justin Jackson continues to be a two-way monster
Jackson scored 22 points against Oregon and forced Tyler Dorsey, who was shooting 65 percent in the tournament coming into the Final Four, to go 3-for-11. Remember, Jackson held Malik Monk to 12 points in the Elite Eight.
In this small-ball environment, there just aren’t a lot of teams who have a 6-8 small forward like Jackson. Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews is a solid 3-and-D guy who might draw the Jackson assignment – but he’s 6-4. The North Carolina sharpshooter has one of the quickest triggers in the country; if Jackson has a bad game, it won’t be because of anything the defense did. It’s nearly impossible to affect his shot.
On the other end, Jackson just shut down two of the best off-ball scorers in the nation in Monk and Dorsey. Gonzaga’s most threatening perimeter player is point guard Nigel Williams-Goss; it’s highly unlikely that Berry will draw that assignment due to his health, so it’ll be interesting to see if Williams throws Jackson or Theo Pinson at him. Pinson is a good perimeter defender; Jackson is a great one. Then again, he’s also UNC’s top offensive option. That’s quite a load to carry.
With that said, this could be Jackson’s last collegiate game. Now’s not the time to be cautious. If he has to play 40 minutes, guard the other team’s best player and lead the Heels in scoring, so be it. Jackson has never been one to back down from a challenge.
Two hot, gigantic centers will meet on the same court
Kennedy Meeks and Przemek Karnowski were both excellent on Saturday. Meeks went for 25 and 14; Karnowski scored 13 points and was stout defensively.
Meeks is listed at 260 pounds. Karnowski checks in at 300. Size isn’t the only reason for these guys’ nightly dominance – but it is a reason. Very rarely will Meeks or Karnowski go up against an opponent of equal, or even similar, physical stature.
That’s what makes Monday night so fascinating. North Carolina and Gonzaga have both used bully-ball to get to this point – but one isn’t going to overwhelm the other with sheer size. Meeks was so good on Saturday because when Jordan Bell would sell out on block attempts, Oregon didn’t have any weak-side rebounders capable of boxing him out. South Carolina was wary of sending double-teams Karnowski’s way – he’s a whip-smart passer – but his strength allowed him to exploit one-on-one matchups on several occasions.
Will these guys cancel each other out, or will one cement his status as the biggest big man? We’re about to find out.
Nigel Williams-Goss eviscerated the second-best defense in the country
Williams-Goss has looked human many times during this NCAA tournament.
Saturday wasn’t one of them.
Yes, it’s true. Jackson has shut down Monk and Dorsey. Then again, South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice are on Jackson’s level as perimeter stoppers – and Williams-Goss tore them to shreds with 23 points, five rebounds and six assists.
Gonzaga’s pet play is a Williams-Goss-Karnowski pick-and-roll. Defenders have a hard time fighting through Karnowski picks, so Williams-Goss has room to operate – and boy, does he make the most of it.
Williams-Goss hit mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper against South Carolina, which usually hangs back in the paint on ball-screens. By the end of the game, the Gamecocks were switching. The Williams-Goss-Karnowski pick-and-roll forced perhaps the most feared defense in the country to abandon its usual scheme in the middle of a Final Four game. That’s telling.Jackson is outstanding, but if Williams-Goss can tear apart South Carolina, he can do the same to North Carolina. The Zags need another big outing from their star point guard.
These teams each boast four starting-caliber big men, fantastic point guards, and accomplished head coaches. Gonzaga has never made it to this point. North Carolina is in its 20th Final Four – but it had a national title ripped away in gruesome fashion last season.
The Tar Heels would have been motivated for Monday night’s game regardless – hello, it’s the national freaking championship – but the redemption element adds the cherry on top.
Tip-off can’t arrive fast enough.