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Three Things Learned: North Carolina 71, Gonzaga 65

UNC’s redemption demonstrates some timeless truths.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As of this writing, the North Carolina basketball team is settled back into their rooms, having just returned from celebrating one of the great seasons by one of the most beloved UNC teams in school history, soaking in the moment. May this review of what we learned in the 2017 title game add one more dash of joy to your week as you soak it in with them. Without further ado:

1. Defense Wins Big Games. The word “ugly” appears in seemingly every other postgame analysis of UNC’s 71-65 slugfest victory over Gonzaga in the 2017 title game. Putting aside the fact that the officiating crew seemed to be trying to maximize their screen time (“Hi Mom! It’s me, Mike! Am I on TV?”) , that’s only true if you don’t find much beauty in defense.

If you didn’t before, you should now, because defense is the reason that the Tar Heels are National Champions, and it is, after all, the job of a defense to wreck offenses. The Tar Heels did that repeatedly. Perhaps the most remarkable number to be gleaned from UNC’s statistical profile is that in the span of six games, they raised their KenPom defensive efficiency rating (essentially, points per possession allowed, adjusted for schedule difficulty) from 25th to 11th.

Keep in mind that this is a full-season rating, so that this improvement occurred despite the 25th rating including 34 of UNC’s 40 games. It’s an extraordinary leap that reflects the mentality of a team that feels like it lost the 2016 title as the result of a defensive breakdown and wouldn’t allow it to happen again.

One more word on this: if you’re wondering what happened to the UNC offense in its last several games, it’s largely explained by the same thing: once they cleared the sweet 16, they saw nothing but elite defenses the rest of the way (Kentucky: 7th; Oregon: 17th; Gonzaga 1st). Sure, there were some open looks that the Tar Heels didn’t hit, and Berry’s ankles didn’t help. But mostly the Tar Heels had the same kinds of difficulties everyone else did against these teams, because they all boasted championship-caliber defense (defense is also the only reason South Carolina (3rd) made the Final 4).

2. Strength of Schedule Still Matters. There is no doubt what the consensus of sports analytics models was: Gonzaga was the best team in the country as they saw it (Ken Pomeroy still rates them #1). Ken Pomeroy, FiveThirtyEight, and ESPN’s stats guys all projected a small but clear Gonzaga win. Somewhat unusual was the fact that the Vegas line saw it differently, beginning at UNC -2.

Betting lines pay careful attention to analytics, so it was unusual to see a divergence like that in such a prominent game. The split reflected an intuition that now seems to have proven correct: no matter your number of PhDs and no matter the number of computers you throw at it, it is simply impossible to reliably compare the meaning of a 37-point win over South Dakota to the implications of a three-point loss to Kentucky on a neutral floor. But that comparison is a microcosm of the difference between Gonzaga’s schedule (ranked 89th overall by Kenpom, with average defenses faced ranking #105) and North Carolina’s schedule (ranked 6th overall, with average defenses faced #19).

Let me hasten to add that I am in no way trying to suggest that Gonzaga’s appearance in the title game was somehow undeserved. It is entirely possible (and not unprecedented) for a team to play a subpar schedule and nonetheless be elite (Boise State football in some years comes to mind). The difference between UNC and Gonzaga in the title game probably lies far less in the true difference in the absolute quality of the teams than in the fact that North Carolina had seen just about everything college basketball could throw at it.

Isaiah Hicks had to learn, painfully at times, how to be effective without fouling against teams that went after him. It seems reasonable to wonder whether Zach Collins, Gonzaga’s 7-foot freshman phenom who fouled out in 14 minutes of play, might have been well served to face that situation sooner. Likewise, Przemek Karnowski, a bear of a man for whom two points was nearly automatic if he got the ball in the post earlier in the tournament, seemed lost against a front line that could push back, making only one field goal against ferocious defense from Hicks and Kennedy Meeks.

UNC’s season was defined by consistently finding new and different ways to win when one or more of its best players was unavailable or playing poorly, or when a team threw a wrinkle at them they had not yet seen, and doing it against elite competition. It’s possible, of course, that none of that actually mattered, and that the result would have been the same had the schedules of the two teams been identical. But were I a Bulldogs fan, I couldn’t help but wonder.

3. Roy Williams is among the greatest college basketball coaches who ever lived. At this point, if you still have someone in your life whose favorite pastime is complaining about all the things they think Roy Williams does wrong, there are only three explanations available: (1) this person is an idiot; (2) this person is incapable of admitting their favorite hobby over the last 14 years was a foolish waste of time; or (3) this person is trolling you. In any event, the conversation is not worth your time.

If you have somehow escaped it until this point, you should know that Williams is now among a group of six college basketball coaches who have ever won three NCAA tournaments (the others are Wooden, Krzyzewski, Rupp, Knight and Calhoun). He has also been to nine Final Fours and finished as runner up three times. In his 14 years at North Carolina, he has been at least the Elite 8 eight times and has won the ACC regular season title as often as the rest of the league combined.

There is no college basketball coach at any program with any combination of recruiting and coaching skills that can match that record during that period. No explanation short of sheer greatness suffices. The only intelligent discussion worth having about Roy Williams as a coach at this point is what his place is among the pantheon of the all-time greats, and what more he might do between now and that terrible day when he decides that he has done all he can do as the head basketball coach at North Carolina.

May that day be several more Mondays like the last one away.