Here we are again. After a tough win over Oregon on Saturday, the Tar Heels find themselves back in the NCAA Tournament championship game. Last year’s defeat against Villanova is still fresh in everyone’s minds, so can this team do what last year’s squad couldn’t and come home with the title?
While everyone rooting for North Carolina would prefer easy wins, not many of these games have been that simple for them. Aside from the opening matchup with Texas Southern and the Elite Eight game against Butler, the Tar Heels have had to fight until the very end each night. This might end up being a good thing because it proves that they can make it work when things go wrong and the opposition puts up a fight. It’s good to know that this team can win ugly, even if it’s bad for our health.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as toughing it out against a Gonzaga team that has only lost a single game all season. North Carolina relies on their fast pace of play that can keep their opponents off-balanced all game long. The problem, of course, is that the Bulldogs are good at clogging the passing lanes, which could limit UNC’s ability to move the ball. They also run an efficient and versatile defense that can challenge Carolina, as long as they keep it together throughout the game. Despite their obvious talent, Gonzaga has shown to be inconsistent later in the game.
To win this thing, the Tar Heels will have to do a better job of hitting their jump shots. As a team, UNC averaged a 46% field goal percentage all season long, however, they could only manage a 36% in the Oregon game. This will need to improve drastically if they hope to get past a tough team like Gonzaga. The Bulldogs make over 50% of their shots, good enough to be considered the second-most efficient shooting team in the country. Because of this, they were able to simply outscore many of their opponents and average 83.1 points per game.
The Heels will also have to do a better job at the free throw line. This team keeps proving how vital consistent free throw shooting can be in a tight game. Despite a solid showing in the first half against Oregon, Kennedy Meeks and Joel Berry missed four free throws in the final six seconds of the game, which almost cost them the win. Stuff like that can’t happen in the championship game.
UNC’s defense will need to limit what Gonzaga can do with the ball for long enough until the offense can punch through the opposition. Holding the Ducks to a 26.9% shooting percentage from the 3-point line and forcing 16 turnovers is exactly the kind of performance the Heels will need.
They will have to pay special attention to Gonzaga’s ball handler Nigel Williams-Goss. The former transfer student averaged 16.9 points and 4.7 assists per game this year while running the offense every day. Freshman Zach Collins could be the program’s first one-and-done after leading the team on offense all season long. He struggled in the early rounds of the tournament but has since regained his form to be a force for Tar Heels fans to worry about.
Most importantly, Carolina will have to continue rebounding like they have all year long. Kennedy Meeks proved just how vital this portion of their game has been when he grabbed 14 rebounds in the Final Four, with an important one coming in the final seconds of the game to clinch it. The key matchup in this regard will be Kennedy Meeks vs. Przemek Karnowski. The Bulldogs’ Polish big man measures seven-foot-one and could change the dynamic in the height game when it comes to grabbing for lose balls and making quick jump shots.
The Tar Heels will need Justin Jackson at the top of his game and Joel Berry setting the pace for the offense. A collection of rebounds by Kennedy Meeks will be important, and if the Luke Maye we’ve seen over the last few games wants to show up again, no one will complain. Victory is certainly in reach, they just have to reach out, grab it, and hold on.
The game will be broadcast on CBS at 9:20 PM and is also available online at NCAA.com