GLENDALE, Ariz. — North Carolina and Gonzaga are separated by 2,567 miles and five NCAA men’s basketball national titles.
The distance between the two campuses is the farthest for NCAA tournament finalists since 1971, when UCLA faced Villanova, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The last time a school with as many as five NCAA championships faced a team looking for its first in the final was 2006, when Florida broke through against UCLA.
Otherwise, the Tar Heels and Gonzaga are not so different heading into Monday’s NCAA tournament championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“We’re the same but different,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said Sunday. “We both like to go inside out. I think they’ve probably got some guys that can get their own shot a little easier than we can.”
There will be big bodies banging on inside and some mixing and matching on the perimeter. Key matchups that could determine the national champion:
Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss vs. North Carolina point guard Joel Berry II
Williams-Goss is the West Coast Conference player of the year and probably the Bulldogs’ best player. The 6-foot-3 junior was terrific in Saturday’s win against South Carolina, with 23 points (9-for-16 shooting), five rebounds and six assists.
Berry is not North Carolina’s best player, that’s Justin Jackson, but he might be the most important Tar Heel. Berry is playing on two sore ankles, though he would not use that as an excuse for shooting 2 for 14 in the semifinal win against Oregon.
Against Kentucky, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams often used 6-foot-6 Theo Pinson on point guard De’Aaron Fox, moving Berry to one of Kentucky’s spot-up shooters. That could be the strategy against Williams-Goss.
UNC’s offensive rebounding vs. Gonzaga’s defensive rebounding:
The Tar Heels are the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country at 15.77 per game and they lead in rebounding margin overall (12.7). Against Oregon, it was offensive rebounds by Kennedy Meeks and Pinson on two missed free throws in the closing seconds that sealed the win.
The Bulldogs are No. 2 in the country in defensive rebounding at 30.84 per game and 11th in rebounding margin (7.2), but they allowed 13 offensive rebounds against South Carolina in the semis.
Gonzaga has a couple of 7-footers in Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, who comes off the bench. Few played them together a lot against South Carolina. Expect more of that against North Carolina, which gives a traditional look with 6-10, 260-pound Meeks in the middle and 6-9 Isaiah Hicks at power forward. The Tar Heels also mix in 6-11 freshman Tony Bradley.
Meeks has been a terror in the tournament and dominated against Oregon, with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Hicks has been slumping. He was 1 for 12 against the Ducks.
Karnowski is a mountain (7-1, 300 pounds) with soft hands and quick feet.
Collins, a freshman, might have the most pro potential of any player in the title game, and is coming off his first double-double of the season (14 points, 13 rebounds).
UNC forward Justin Jackson vs. Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams:
The 6-8 Jackson (18.3 points per game) is the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. He is a slasher who has improved as a 3-point shooter (38.2 percent this season).