Mark Few and the Bulldogs seek their first national title against a Tar Heels team making its second straight championship game appearance
Can North Carolina finish what it started a season ago? Or will Gonzaga cap off a memorable season with its first national championship?
Both teams needed to survive late rallies in the Final Four to reach Monday night's national championship game. The Tar Heels missed four free throws in the final six seconds, but corralled offensive rebounds both times to edge Oregon 77-76. The Bulldogs fell behind after a 16-0 run by South Carolina, but held off the Gamecocks down the stretch for a 77-73 victory.
North Carolina (32-7) is making its second straight national championship game appearance and 11th overall. The Tar Heels are seeking their first NCAA Tournament title since winning it all in 2009.
Gonzaga (37-1) is making its first-ever title game appearance. The Bulldogs are the first West Coast Conference team to reach this point since San Francisco did it with Bill Russell in 1956. They are trying to become the first team to win a national title from a mid-major conference since UNLV won the tournament in 1990 out of the Big West.
North Carolina and Gonzaga met once previously in the NCAA Tournament, facing off in a Sweet 16 game in 2009. The Tar Heels routed the Bulldogs 98-77 on their way to winning their most recent national crown.
National Championship: No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (37-1) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (32-7)
When: 9:20 p.m. ET (Monday)
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
Line: UNC -2
Keys for Gonzaga
Keeping North Carolina off the glass is a chore for any team, but the Bulldogs need to win the battle of the boards. Failing to box out on missed free throws in the final seconds cost Oregon a chance to reach the championship game. The Tar Heels are used to imposing their will on the glass.
North Carolina entered the Final Four as the nation's leader in rebounding margin, collecting 13.0 more rebounds per game than its opponents. Kennedy Meeks leads the way with 9.3 boards per game. Meeks totaled 25 points and 14 rebounds against the Ducks, becoming one of just five players to post those numbers in a Final Four game in the last 40 years.
Gonzaga has enough size to match North Carolina around the rim. Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins are both 7-footers who can take up space and hold their ground down low. Johnathan Williams and Nigel Williams-Goss are also skilled and tenacious at corralling loose balls. All four average between 5.7 and 6.6 rebounds per game. Collins, in particular, came up big against the Gamecocks. The freshman totaled 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.
Beyond rebounding, the Bulldogs need to get Williams-Goss going early on offense. When the junior guard is in a rhythm, Gonzaga's offense is nearly impossible to slow down. He has scored 20-plus points six times in the postseason – including back-to-back 23 point outings against Xavier and South Carolina. Williams-Goss averages 16.7 points per game on 49 percent shooting this season.
Keys for North Carolina
The Tar Heels had to survive a ragged shooting performance from several key players against Oregon. Three starters – Isaiah Hicks, Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson – combined to shoot 5-of-34 (.147) from the floor against the Ducks. North Carolina cannot survive a similar shooting performance while facing Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs are one of the nation's elite defensive teams. Gonzaga allows just 61.2 points per game, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense. Teams have major trouble shooting from long distance against the WCC champions, connecting on just 29.5 percent of their 3-point field goal attempts per game.
North Carolina has capable outside shooters in Berry, Justin Jackson, Luke Maye and Nate Britt. All four players shoot 33 percent or better from the perimeter with Maye leading the way at 41 percent. If they can get the outside shot to fall early, it will force Gonzaga to pull away from the basket and give Meeks, Jackson and Hicks more room to get to the rim and create high percentage shots.
The Tar Heels definitely need Meeks to come up big down low like he did against Oregon. The 6-foot-10 forward is their best option to counter the potential damage Collins and Karnowski can do around the rim.
Both North Carolina and Gonzaga had to survive close calls to reach this point and both teams are equally capable of finishing as champions. The Tar Heels and the Bulldogs mirror one another in so many ways. They have balanced offenses featuring multiple scoring threats. They also feature tough defenses that can hound opponents into bad shots and turnovers.
In the end, this championship game may feel like an eerie rerun from last season for North Carolina when the Tar Heels lost to Villanova on a buzzer-beater. Gonzaga is deep enough and talented enough to hang toe-to-toe with North Carolina for 40 minutes. The Bulldogs proved capable of surviving far tougher defenses from West Virginia and South Carolina. They're not going to be intimidated by the Tar Heels on either end.
Expect to see plenty of ties and lead changes down to the final minute. In the end, though, Gonzaga will make an extra play or two and cut down the nets in Arizona.
Prediction: Gonzaga 78, North Carolina 72
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.