Two evenly-matched juggernauts will vie for the national championship on Monday night in the desert.
It doesn’t get much better.
Here are five key questions that will determine the national title winner.
Who guards Justin Jackson?
Jackson is the ultimate mismatch. A 6-8, smooth-stroking small forward with a crafty floater game, few can match Jackson’s combination of size, skill and athleticism.
He’s a problem. The good news: Gonzaga might have a guy who’s big and quick enough to hound Jackson – power forward Johnathan Williams. The bad news: if Williams guards the small forward, who’s supposed to jostle with the 6-9, 242-pound Isaiah Hicks up front?
MORE: Live stream the North Carolina, Gonzaga game
The most Jackson-like player Gonzaga has faced in the tournament in Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett. Williams drew the assignment, and he was superb – the Missouri transfer held Bluiett, who was playing the best ball of his career, to 3-of-14 shooting. Williams has elite lateral quickness for his size; he’s able to scoot around on-ball and off-ball picks as well as any big man in the country.
But Bluiett plays power forward for the Musketeers, so Gonzaga didn’t need to cross match. Putting Williams on Jackson would likely slot Jordan Mathews, a 6-4, 200-pounder, on a guy who can do this:
While mildly terrifying, this might be Gonzaga’s best option, considering Hicks went 1-for-12 against Oregon and missed numerous wide-open bunnies. Who would you rather have beat you – the ACC Player of the Year, or a post player who’s three for his last 17? Hicks has had a solid season, but it’s no secret that he’s scuffling. If Roy Williams wants Jackson, Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks to take less shots so he can exploit Hicks’ size advantage, he might be playing into Mark Few’s hands.
How Gonzaga chooses to handle this will be fascinating.
Who does Jackson guard?
The fact that we’re asking these questions speaks to how valuable of a chess piece Jackson is. The junior made life for Malik Monk and Tyler Dorsey, two of the most gifted scorers in the country, extremely difficult in the last two games. Monk scored 12 points in the Elite Eight, well below his average. Dorsey went 3-for-11 in the Final Four; he was previously shooting 65 percent in the tournament. Jackson shadowed both relentlessly.Gonzaga’s best perimeter player is point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. Though Jackson might be UNC’s best option on NWG, he hasn’t had to stick a point guard all season. Berry usually guards his own position. But since he’s hobbled, Berry’s likely to take the less-threatening Josh Perkins.
Roy Williams may arrive in the middle and put Theo Pinson on Williams-Goss. Pinson isn’t Jackson, but you don’t want your best offensive player to be exhausted from chasing around a ball-dominant point guard for 40 minutes.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Pinson take Williams-Goss in the first half and let Jackson disrupt him once the game gets to crunch time. Take note of the individual matchups as soon as the ball is tipped.
Could cross-matching unlock North Carolina’s transition game?
We don’t know what the individual matchups will be – yet. But it’s fair to expect there to be cross-matching – if Williams-Goss is guarding Berry but Berry isn’t guarding Williams-Goss, that qualifies. There will probably me more.
North Carolina is an up-tempo team, so if Gonzaga players are scattered all over the floor after a miss and have to take unusual routes to locate their defensive assignments, it may be too late. UNC ranks 16th in adjusted pace. A plausible scenario: if Johnathan Williams crashes the glass, comes up empty and Jackson is already flying down the left sideline, it will be a major issue.
For that reason, Gonzaga may want to sacrifice offensive rebounding for floor balance. The Bulldogs’ half-court offense is better than North Carolina’s; their transition offense isn’t.
For as good as Gonzaga’s front line is, the Bulldogs rank 142nd in offensive rebounding rate. That’s by design. Few values setting his defense more than second-chance opportunities, so they’re prepared for the Tar Heels’ fastbreak fury.
But if Few opts to defend the Tar Heels straight up – which would mean putting Mathews on Jackson instead of Johnathan Williams – this may be why.
How healthy is Berry?
We broke this down in detail here. Berry doesn’t have to score 20 for North Carolina to win, but if he throws up another 2-for-14 dud, Gonzaga will likely take home the crown. The Tar Heels would take a solid game from their banged up point guard.
Can a Gonzaga role player step up?
North Carolina pays extra defensive attention to an opposing team’s best players. That sounds obvious, but Roy Williams takes it to the extreme – against Oregon, he instructed his guys to help on Dillon Brooks drives to the rim, leaving guys like Casey Benson and Payton Pritchard open outside.
That was the right strategy against Oregon. Pritchard and Benson didn’t hurt the Heels much – but if UNC gives Gonzaga the same look, guys like Perkins, Mathews and Silas Melson will need to make them regret it.
Perkins is particularly important, especially since he’ll likely be going up against a hobbled Berry. The sophomore didn’t score against South Carolina, but he’s a valuable fifth starter – a capable secondary creator and ball-mover than can knock down open shots in a pinch. Perkins is a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and he should be able to attack Berry closeouts.
Gonzaga doesn’t want Perkins hi-jacking the offense at the expense of Przemek Karnowski, Williams-Goss or Zach Collins. But if he can score about 10 points on five or six shot attempts, that could swing the game. He’ll get chances.
Final score prediction: Gonzaga 76, North Carolina 73