By David Sisk
Six Keys to Gonzaga vs North Carolina
The Inside Game – What will both teams have in common Monday night? They won’t have a decided height advantage in the post, which both normally share. The Heels’ bigs have dominated this season, and Kennedy Meeks was a one man wrecking crew against Oregon. Both teams have enjoyed large rebounding surpluses on the year. Offensive boards have led to a large part of Carolina’s points. 7-foot-1, Przemek Karnowski will be matched up with the 6-foot-11 Meeks. The Zags also feature 6-foot-9 Johnathan Williams, and 6-foot-10 Killian Tillie and 7-foot-0 Zach Collins off the bench. Carolina counters with 6-foot-9 Isaiah Hicks, 6-foot-10 Tony Bradley, and 6-foot-8 Luke Maye. What happens if the Zags hold their own on the boards, how will that impact the Tar Heels’ offense? Both sides are very able on the interior. Which side can get the better of the other there is anybody’s guess. But one this is for sure, whoever has the advantage in this part of the game, will have a leg up to win the National Championship.
Perimeter Shooting – 3-pointers have been considered a weakness of both teams. Each squad answered their critics with some of their best long ball deliveries of the season. Gonzaga shot 47.4 % for the game. Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Matthews went 6 for 13 themselves. They were impressive with their ability to shoot transition threes as well as contested ones. The hot streak started out with South Carolina being forced to double the bigger Gonzaga posts. Skip passes out of the traps to open shooters got Williams-Goss and Matthews in rhythm. North Carolina’s size means they won’t have to double. Their length on the perimeter also means Gonzaga will have more contested jumpers.
North Carolina shoots just 31.3% from three on the season. They were led by Josh Jackson Saturday who went 4 for 9 for 22 points. Alhough Gonzaga is the better 3-point shooting team, if Carolina can keep up the hot hand, combined with their size and ability to push the ball, makes them a hard out. But Gonzaga is outstanding guarding the three ball. They give up just 29.5% shooting on the season.
Josh Jackson – The 6-foot-8 junior has been arguably the best player in the tournament. Not only is he averaging 18.3 points per game, he has also been taking the opponents’ top perimeter scorer. His size makes him such a tough matchup. He is generally three to four inches taller than whoever is guarding him. He has NBA size for a three. If Gonzaga goes with their current lineup, the 6-foot-4 Matthews will be left to guard the taller Jackson. Mark Few will have to make a decision on his matchup. He may look to slide the seven-foot Collins alongside Karnowski, which not only matches Carolina’s size, but also moves the 6-foot-9 Williams to the wing to guard Jackson. Williams may be a fish out of water on the outside, but he definitely has the agility and athleticism along with his size, to make it worth looking at.
The Transition Game – This is Carolina’s bread and butter. It was having trouble early with Oregon’s matchup zone. Roy Williams countered with getting the “Carolina break” going and taking good shots before Oregon’s defense could get set. What made it doubly impressive was the posts were the ones running the floor and getting the layups. If Gonzaga does go big, their two seven footers have to get back defensively. If they go small, then they have to worry about Jackson and Carolina’s bigs. Gonzaga got the better of South Carolina in the up and down game, and made tough shots off the dead sprint, rising up to knock down perimeter threes. The Bulldogs can score plenty of fast break points on their own, but the challenge will be getting back on transition defense and forcing the Tar Heels to play in the half court.
Joel Berry’s ankles – Yes, that’s ankles as in plural. Berry has battled lower body injuries all season, and missed several games early in the year. While he was out, Carolina was a decidedly less-effective team. He had a right ankle sprain for much of the season, which he reaggravated last weekend. To top that off, he sprained his left ankle against Kentucky. He sat out much of last weeks’ practices, and was noticeably less than one-hundred percent against Oregon. That was with five day’s rest. CBS’s Charles Barkley, who picked Gonzaga, said Berry can’t make the comeback in 48 hours. The question is not whether he will be on top of his game. It is already a given that he will not be. Instead, how healthy can he be. He was more of a game manager Saturday. Can he do the same against guards who can get after him? That is another huge variable. A North Carolina win with Berry in some capacity is almost inconceivable.
Holding a lead – Don’t be shocked if the winner of this game comes from behind, or if one of these teams score in the final seconds for the win. North Carolina has danced on its grave in three tournament games. It was down five to Arkansas with three minutes left. It was down five late to Kentucky, and after regaining the lead, Malik Monk drained a three to tie it up in a game that Kentucky really had no business being in. Saturday night, they were up six in the final two minutes over Oregon with Dillon Brooks fouled out. Once again, they almost squandered the lead.
Gonzaga has whistled in the graveyard as well. In a game in which West Virginia only shot 26.7 percent, the Zags had to catch every break imaginable in the final minute to pull out a hard-fought win. In the semi-final matchup, it led South Carolina by 14 before giving up a 15-0 run in the latter stages of the second half. It is imperative that whoever is ahead late in the game Monday night hold on to the lead. History says it may not happen.