Expert Picks for the 2017 NCAA Championship Game
After nearly five months and more than 5,000 games, the 2016-17 men's college basketball season all comes down to this: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 1 Gonzaga for the national championship.
It was a David vs. Goliath story 18 years ago when little-known Gonzaga almost defeated mighty Connecticut to reach the Final Four. Now fully grown into an annual powerhouse, Gonzaga is no longer some underdog with a slingshot. This ought to be a tug-of-war between two of the best teams the college basketball nation has to offer.
So, what's going to happen Monday night in Phoenix?
As was the case for the Final Four, we've polled our college basketball experts—David Gardner, Kerry Miller, C.J. Moore and Brian Pedersen—for answers to the most burning questions about the big game.
Who wins the game? Which frontcourt wins the war? Will anyone from this game have a good career in the NBA? And—most important of all—who will be the worst dancer in the postgame celebration.
There were 10 questions in all, and even though there aren't many options to choose from, responses landed all over the map for the most part. If our divided experts are any indication of what to expect, we could be headed for another instant classic of a season finale.
Who Wins? How Does It Happen?
David Gardner: Gonzaga. I don’t think there’s any substitution for the experience that the Tar Heels have heading into this title game, but there are just too many ways that Gonzaga can beat you offensively. Up top, I think the Bulldogs have a big mismatch with long point guard Nigel Williams-Goss—who inexplicably became stronger after a nasty ankle roll against South Carolina—against the 6-foot Joel Berry.
In the frontcourt, Kennedy Meeks vs. Przemek Karnowski will be a ton of fun, but UNC will be vulnerable against Gonzaga’s other 7-footer, Zach Collins, who is playing like a man who wants to be taken in this summer’s NBA draft lottery.
Kerry Miller: This is going to be billed as a war between the two best and deepest frontcourts in the country. But after the mountains in the paint deal an equal number of body blows to each other, this one will be determined by perimeter play—where Gonzaga has the edge.
UNC's Justin Jackson is the best perimeter player in this game, but seven of the guys in Gonzaga's eight-man rotation shoot better than 36 percent from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs have been better all season long at both shooting and defending the three, and that proves to be the difference in their first national championship.
C.J. Moore: These are the two most complete teams in college basketball, and both play inside-out. Across the board, they're pretty even. But if the Zags have a slight advantage, it's their frontcourt. The combination of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins is just slightly better than what UNC has to offer, especially on the defensive end.
Kennedy Meeks was a huge part of UNC's win Saturday (25 points and 14 rebounds), but the length and strength of Karnowski and Collins could give him problems. Unless Justin Jackson goes nuts in this game, I like the Zags to win.
Brian Pedersen: It will be hard for the championship game to surpass the excitement of those thrilling semifinals, but somehow Gonzaga and North Carolina will make this happen by trading blows from the opening tip to the final whistle. When it's over, though, the Tar Heels will avenge last year's title game defeat by hoisting their sixth national crown and third under coach Roy Williams.
UNC will lean on its rebounding acumen and tournament experience to get past a Gonzaga squad that shoots better and plays tougher on the defensive end but has never faced this kind of atmosphere before. The semifinal win over South Carolina wasn't nearly as stressful as this one will be, and ultimately the Bulldogs' lack of challenges during the regular season will cost them in the final moments this time.
Who Will Be the Best Player on the Court?
Gardner: If the national semifinals were any indication, it’ll be a big man. The ultimate answer will depend on who wins, so I’ll say it’ll be Zach Collins. He was Gonzaga’s best two-way player against South Carolina, and I’ll bet his hot streak continues in the title game.
Miller: Kennedy Meeks. UNC's big man is averaging a double-double in the tournament and has at least one block and one steal in each game. He'll have his work cut out for him against Przemek Karnowski, but Meeks didn't put up 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Final Four just to have a dud in the title game.
Moore: Probably Justin Jackson. A case could be made for Nigel Williams-Goss, Joel Berry or Przemek Karnowski. And Zach Collins will be the most talented pro prospect on the floor. But Jackson is the best college player with the ability to score at all three levels and a high basketball IQ. There's a reason I put a qualifier on my Gonzaga pick, because Jackson is the one big edge for UNC.
Pedersen: Justin Jackson, North Carolina. His shot looked good against Oregon, and he's showing more aggression and willingness to drive rather than just settle for jumpers. Gonzaga doesn't have a player with the length to defend him properly.
The Biggest X-Factor Will Be…
Gardner: Isaiah Hicks. Hicks had a horrible game against Oregon—going 1-of-12 from the floor and recording just three rebounds in 20 minutes. But UNC will need all the size it can muster against Gonzaga’s front line.
Miller: Zach Collins. Frontcourt fouls are going to be a huge story in this game, and Collins both draws and commits them at a higher rate than anyone else on either roster, per KenPom.com. If he commits two early fouls, it'll be a huge story. Same goes for if he draws two early fouls on Kennedy Meeks or Isaiah Hicks.
Moore: Offensive rebounding. North Carolina is the best in the country on the offensive glass. The Zags try to contest everything, and if you can get shots up and over rim protectors, there's usually opportunities for putbacks. Gonzaga will have to be sharp in its rotations when UNC forces help.
Pedersen: Gonzaga's Zach Collins. Assuming he can keep himself on the court—and not commit silly fouls—he's incredibly difficult to deal with. He averages 10.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in only 17.3 minutes per game and was a beast in the semifinal win over South Carolina.
Who Gets Final Four MVP?
Gardner: Again, the winner here will be determined by which team emerges Monday night, but I’ll say Zach Collins has the biggest head start on anyone. He had 14 points, 13 rebounds and six crucial blocks against South Carolina. His main competition is probably teammate Nigel Williams-Goss.
Miller: Nigel Williams-Goss. Guards who can slash or pull up with equal effectiveness have been a major problem for the Tar Heels this season, and NWG has mastered that art. It doesn't hurt matters that he has scored 23 points in each of the past two games, thus entering the championship with a bit of an advantage over his teammates.
Moore: Zach Collins. I see Mark Few once again going to the Collins-Karnowski frontline. Collins was a factor on both ends Saturday versus the Gamecocks, and he'll be the difference on both ends once again.
Pedersen: Justin Jackson. If he continues to show a willingness to go toward the basket and not just hang out on the perimeter, there's no way Gonzaga will be able to shut him down. The junior's masterful 2016-17 season will be capped with this prestigious award.
Who Wins the Battle of Elite PGs: Joel Berry or Nigel Williams-Goss?
Gardner: Even if Berry were 100 percent healthy, I’d give the edge to Williams-Goss. But based on Berry’s questionable ankles and Williams-Goss’ heroics against South Carolina—he had 23 points and six assists—I think he’s the clear favorite. Look for Williams-Goss to go right at Berry early and often.
Miller: If both guys were at full strength, I'd still give the nod to the Zag. But with Joel Berry hobbled by ankle injuries and not playing up to his full potential thus far in the tournament, Williams-Goss is going to be so much better than Berry that it becomes the difference for Gonzaga.
Moore: Williams-Goss. Both are extremely smart point guards and can get their shots when they want. But Berry is at his best when he's able to slash toward the rim, and Gonzaga's rim protectors will make that tough. Look for Williams-Goss to have more success with his unguardable mid-range jumpers off one foot.
Pedersen: Nigel Williams-Goss. In addition to having the more consistent shot, not just in the NCAA tournament but throughout the season, Williams-Goss is a better defender who can handle not just Berry but other North Carolina perimeter players.
Which Impressive Set of Big Men Will Win the War in the Paint?
Gardner: Although Kennedy Meeks came to play against Oregon, Gonzaga has been getting better consistent production out of its pair of 7-footers. There’s simply no defending Przemek Karnowski if he gets a post entry pass—you’re either going to see a nifty move to the basket or a kick-out to a wide-open guard. Collins isn’t on the same level as a passer, but he is playing with a ton of confidence right now.
Miller: Don't ask me. Ask the officials. We've spent a lot of time this season discussing Isaiah Hicks' foul trouble as something that could put a pothole in UNC's road to redemption, but both Zach Collins and Killian Tillie commit fouls at a worse rate than Hicks. They play to a draw in the frontcourt if the refs allow it, but a few early whistles could give either team a big edge.
Moore: Gonzaga's and it's all about the defensive end. Both sets of bigs are offensively gifted, but Gonzaga's bigs are the better defensive group.
Pedersen: This is where experience really comes into play. North Carolina's bigs include a pair of seniors in Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks who will be competing in their 17th NCAA tournament game, while Gonzaga's big boys include two freshmen and a senior (Przemek Karnowski) who wasn't part of last year's NCAA run because of injury. It will be close, but in clutch moments the Tar Heels' size will win out.
The Most Memorable Moment of the Title Game Will Be…
Gardner: At some point, Przemek Karnowski and Kennedy Meeks are going to collide. And when that happens, the ripples will be felt throughout the state of Arizona and across the college basketball universe.
Miller: There won't be another Kris Jenkins type of buzzer-beater, but a made three-pointer against the Tar Heels will be the most memorable moment for the second straight year. Late in the second half, Jordan Mathews will drain his fourth triple of the game, and it will be the dagger.
Moore: A Zach Collins block. UNC is going to have a chance for a huge bucket down the stretch, and Collins is going to be there to wipe it away.
Pedersen: UNC coach Roy Williams doing another of his old-man dances on the court after the Tar Heels win. Expect him to have his hat tilted to the side and a goofy look on his face, getting fully into character.
The Worst Dancer in the Postgame Celebration Will Be...
Gardner: If you’ve seen Mark Few do a soaking-wet handstand before, you already know the answer to this question.
Miller: If you're looking for the guy most likely to replicate the Mark Madsen dance, it's got to be Killian Tillie. In addition to being 6'10", Tillie has dealt with knee and ankle issues already in his career. He doesn't seem like the type of guy who can cut a rug.
Moore: Przemek Karnowski. The big fella has great feet on the basketball floor, but I have a hard time imagining a mammoth man like him has dance moves.
Pedersen: See previous slide. Roy Williams has no shame and if he gets his third national title with the Tar Heels—one more than legendary UNC coach Dean Smith—he can jiggy with it however he'd like.
Which Player in This Game Will Have the Best NBA Career?
Gardner: It’s hard to project how good 7-footers will be once they get in the NBA because injuries can so easily curtail promising careers, but Zach Collins has all the tools—including a killer jump shot—to be the ideal big man in the modern NBA.
Miller: Tony Bradley needs another year of training before jumping to the pros, but he is going to be special once he figures out how to play without getting into foul trouble. He should be a top-10 center in the NBA within the next five years.
Moore: It's either Zach Collins or Justin Jackson. I'll lean Jackson because it's harder to succeed as a true big in the league than it used to be. Jackson adding range to his jumper this year has made him a complete scorer. He also has the work ethic and intelligence that typically leads to success in the league.
Pedersen: Nigel Williams-Goss. There are no surefire NBA stars in this game but several who can work their way into productive NBA careers. NWG tops that list because of his ability to do a little of anything, making him a valuable asset off the bench who could eventually develop into a star.
Which Team Will Return to the National Title Game First?
Gardner: If Zach Collins returns to Gonzaga, the Bulldogs could be back in next year’s title game, but I’m betting that won’t happen. And considering how regularly Roy Williams makes the Final Four, I’ll go with the Tar Heels.
Miller: The Tar Heels have never gone more than 12 years between appearances in the national championship game, so this is basically a question of whether I think Gonzaga can get back by 2028. And the answer is yes. In fact, Gonzaga may well do it in 2018 if Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss both stay.
Moore: North Carolina. It's likely that Joel Berry returns next season, so UNC will likely have the more talented roster in 2017-18. It's also probably smart to bet on Roy Williams, who is coaching in his sixth title game Monday.
Pedersen: North Carolina. As consistently good as Gonzaga has been, this has the feel of a once-in-a-lifetime group, and the Bulldogs have also benefited from a relatively easy NCAA tournament draw. UNC will traditionally have more talent at its disposal and thus perennially has a better chance to make a final appearance.