Many experts predicted that Gonzaga and North Carolina would meet in the South region semifinal, and though both teams struggled in their second-round games, the Heels and the Zags will meet Friday night in one of the tourney’s most anticipated games.
Who has the advantage playing in Memphis?
Shay: At first glance, one would assume that the Heels have an overwhelming advantage, because they have a larger fan base, plus Chapel Hill is a lot closer to Memphis than Spokane. However, the Zags have two things working in their favor.
First, while the diehard Zags fans will certainly be outnumbered by diehard Heels fans, don’t underestimate just how passionate a group Gonzaga fans are. Ask any team that has ever had to play in front of the Kennel Club.
Second, the Zags will win the “neutrals”. Anyone who has ever been to an NCAA tournament game knows that the fans who have no rooting interest end up cheering for the underdog.
The Zags aren’t the “cinderfella” they were a decade ago when they went to the Elite Eight, but they are still up against the Goliath of college basketball and the tighter the game gets, the more fans will jump on the Zags' bandwagon.
Nathan: UNC has the obvious regional advantage playing in Memphis and will be able to send more of their fans to the tournament than those left-coasters. Though Gonzaga will have the "fans of the underdog," "the fans of the little guy," "the fans of the mid-majors," and "the fans of the English Bulldog" probably in their corner, it won't be enough to offset the huge popularity of North Carolina's basketball program nor their Carolina-blue clad fans, who will surely fill the FedEx Forum.
Worse yet, in terms of morale, Gonzaga will be forced to play on the home court of the last team to hand them a defeat, a 68-50 drubbing handed to them by none other than the Memphis Tigers.
What are the keys to victory for your team?
Shay: As it is for any team playing Carolina, Gonzaga first has to find a way to contain Tyler Hansbrough. A couple years ago when these teams played in the Preseason NIT, Josh Heytvelt held to “Psycho T” to just nine points, and the Zags went on to an 82-74 win. A similar performance from Heytvelt is essential to the Bulldogs winning this game.
Next, the Gonzaga guards have to keep performing as well as they have been. Though UNC has a great pair of guards in Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, Gonzaga has a pretty impressive group with Matt Bouldin, Jeremy Pargo, Steven Gray, Micah Downs, and second-round hero Demetri Goodson.
The Zags struggled early in the season when Pargo wasn’t at his best, but Bouldin has picked up the slack. Combine that with the perimeter shooting of Downs and Gray, alongside Goodson’s quickness, and the Tar Heels will have their hands full.
Lastly, the Zags need a big game out of Austin Daye. These teams will have battles from their post and outside players, but nobody on Carolina matches up with the tall, athletic Daye.
In games this season where Daye has scored 15 or more points, the Zags are 9-1. If they can get Daye going early, the Heels will find themselves in a hole that they won’t be able to escape.
Nathan: UNC, as always, must play from the inside-out, but not in the same manner that they did two years ago when Gonzaga ousted them from an early-season game at Madison Square Garden.
In that game, Josh Heytvelt thoroughly outplayed Tyler Hansbrough and the guard combination of Matt Bouldin and Jeremy Pargo outplayed the Tar Heels backcourt. That was the "preseason."
This is for keeps, and the Tar Heels will be ready, all 50 toes included.
UNC must find a way to get to the foul line rather than becoming frustrated and settling for perimeter shots. Pargo is playing some of his best ball of the season after a disappointing start, and his matchup with Ty "the Toe" Lawson is probably the most important in the game.
Lawson will be operating on six days' rest, plenty of time to be at full strength, and Gonzaga has a difficult choice to make. Run 'n gun with the Heels or try to slow them down?
No one can run with Carolina and if Lawson can keep his turnover-to-assist ratio at its usual impressive level, he can keep the Heels and their No. 1 offensive efficiency tuned to its peak if Gonzaga goes away from their strength and slows down the game.
Finally, UNC knows who to go to in crunch time. Force it to Hansbrough inside for a short field goal or two foul shots (he is efficient at both). Let Lawson slice and dice the Bulldogs like an infomercial knife set.
Kick it out to Wayne Ellington for the killer jump shot. Who is the Gonzaga's go-to guy? They don't really have one, and it showed in the final five minutes against Western Kentucky.
What does this game mean to you and your fellow fans?
Shay: Even though a number of “experts” are saying that all the pressure is now off the Zags because they made it this far and anything more is surpassing expectation, there is no Gonzaga fan that is content with just making the Sweet 16.
Mark Few's team has been a staple in the tournament for a decade now, but they still don’t get the respect that the “elite” programs in college basketball do. A win against UNC would push them into that category.
Basically, a win for the Zags means that it’s time to seat them at the big boys table, like it or not.
Nathan: Simply put, anything less than a national championship will be disappointing to most Tar Heel fans, but nothing would be worse than looking past a talented Gonzaga squad, especially with all-around guard play that may be the best UNC has faced outside of Durham all year.
There can be no distractions, no looking ahead. Take nothing for granted. The goal is the national championship, and the only way to make it is one step at a time.
There is little history between the two schools (they have never faced off on each other's court or in NCAA Tournament play), and the celebration will be muted on Franklin Street even if the Heels pull out the victory.
There are greater goals in Chapel Hill, and both the team and fans will be ready to go to work on Sunday.
What is your team's worst tourney moment?
Shay: Without question, the Sweet 16 loss against UCLA three years ago. The Zags had one of the nation’s best players in Adam Morrison and dominated that game for 37 minutes.
Then after a few bad turnovers, some poor defense, and a Gus Johnson eruption, Morrison and the rest of the team were left lying on the court in Oakland while the Bruins danced to the Elite 8.
I don't want to talk about it anymore.
Nathan: Texas shattered a backboard and the Tar Heels' dreams in a disappointing second-round loss in 1996. The Heels were underdogs, but no one expected the humiliating 92-73 loss.
Boston College upended a No. 1-seeded UNC team in 1994, one year after Dean Williams had won yet another championship for the school.
But right now, nothing hurts more than the devastating drilling that Kansas delivered in the Final Four last year. This year, perhaps Coach K or some other victim can wear a Tar Heels' sticker in the stands at the championship game.
What is your team's best tourney moment?
Shay: A week ago this question would have had a much different answer.
Until last Saturday the best Zags memory had to be their incredible run to the Elite 8 in 1999, but now the best tourney moment for Gonzaga is Demetri Goodson going the length of the court and turning a potential meltdown against Western Kentucky into the most exciting moment in Zags tourney history.
Nathan: The 1993 championship that kept the trophy in an eight-mile radius for the third consecutive year.
The 2005 championship in which Roy Williams made a permanent mark on UNC history.
The 1982 championship that pushed Michael Jordan onto the national stage for good.
Perhaps the biggest celebration I ever saw on Franklin Street was a balmy evening in which Duke's loss sent them home and UNC's victory (immediately following) sent them on to the Elite Eight.
That might give you an indication of where the priorities lie on Tobacco Road.
Shay: This should be one of the best games of the entire tournament.
It’ll be a tough fight, but in the end Heytvelt will be able to contain Hansbrough (again), the Gonzaga guards will go toe-to-toe (no pun intended) with Lawson and Ellington, and the Heels won’t have an answer on defense for the athletic Daye.
Zags win 87-83, and brackets are busted all across the country.
Nathan: Tyler Hansbrough the senior is not about to let Josh Heytvelt push him around in the same way that Tyler Hansbrough the sophomore did. He is two years stronger and two years smarter, which is saying a lot for last year's National Player of the Year.
More importantly, Roy Williams' cautious approach with Lawson's jammed toe means that the best point guard in the nation appears to be at full strength, and Pargo is simply not fast enough on defense to stop him.
These Bullies are headed back to the doghouse...in Washington.
UNC takes a bite out of Gonzaga, 97-87, and Chapel Hill steels itself for the next challenge in a season of destiny.