Everything You Need to Know About the 2017 NCAA Basketball Championship Game
When North Carolina and Gonzaga take the floor for the 2017 national championship Monday night, it'll be the program with the most Final Four appearances in men's college basketball history against the program that many were starting to believe would never make it to this stage.
In other words, this isn't your normal battle between No. 1 seeds.
But for 40 minutes in Phoenix, Arizona, that ancient history won't matter. Rather, this game is going to be decided by offensive rebounding, pace of play and the health of the ankles of the starting point guards.
We have a full breakdown of everything you need to know about the 2017 title game: How the two teams got here, the biggest storylines to watch, who their stars and underrated players are, and each team's blueprint to victory.
Read up and settle in for what should be an entertaining war between the nation's two best and deepest frontcourts.
Record: 37-1, No. 1 seed in West Region
Path to Phoenix: 66-46 over No. 16 South Dakota State, 79-73 over No. 8 Northwestern, 61-58 over No. 4 West Virginia, 83-59 over No. 11 Xavier, 77-73 over No. 7 South Carolina
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency
Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 222 in the country in defensive turnover percentage
If Gonzaga wore any other name on the front of its jerseys, no one would be surprised that it's here. The Bulldogs have been No. 1 on KenPom since mid-January, playing some of the most efficient basketball of the past 15 years.
Led by Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and a four-headed frontcourt, they have been great on offense and nothing short of elite on defense. Gonzaga's tournament opponents are shooting just 34 percent from the field.
But because we're talking about a team that had infamously failed to reach the Final Four in each of the past 18 years, people are still waiting for the bottom to drop out or looking for a reason to discredit this run.
Newsflash, folks: Gonzaga is an outstanding team and deserves to be here.
The Bulldogs didn't show much of that strength in the first three rounds. They struggled early with South Dakota State, nearly allowed Northwestern to rally from a 20-point deficit and survived an ugly foul-fest against West Virginia. But the Gonzaga that showed up against Xavier in the Elite Eight and the one that opened up a 14-point second-half lead against South Carolina was the Gonzaga that we watched dominate the regular season.
Whether it was nerves, rust or just a lack of focus, the Zags appear to have shaken off what plagued them in the first half of the tournament. With Williams-Goss, Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski living up to their potential, they're ready to bring a national championship back to Spokane, Washington.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Record: 32-7, No. 1 seed in South Region
Path to Phoenix: 103-64 over No. 16 Texas Southern, 72-65 over No. 8 Arkansas, 92-80 over No. 4 Butler, 75-73 over No. 2 Kentucky, 77-76 over No. 3 Oregon
Biggest strength: Ranked No. 1 in the country in offensive rebounding percentage
Achilles' heel: Shooting 70.1 percent from the free-throw line in the NCAA tournament
Eight years ago, North Carolina had one of the most dominant runs through the NCAA tournament. Led by the likes of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough, those Tar Heels won every game by at least a 12-point margin, including smashing No. 4 seed Gonzaga 98-77.
To put it lightly, this team hasn't been quite as unstoppable.
The Tar Heels needed to close on a 12-0 run to survive a second-round scare from Arkansas. They needed an identical 12-0 run and a Luke Maye buzzer-beater to defeat Kentucky to reach the Final Four. And in Saturday night's one-point win over Oregon, they missed four free throws in the final six seconds yet managed to make it back to the national championship game for the second straight year.
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, but it's easier to be lucky when you're the best offensive rebounding team in the country. North Carolina has averaged 15.6 offensive rebounds per game in the tournament, which has helped make up for a few terrible shooting performances.
It also helps to be loaded with motivated experience. Seniors such as Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt aren't about to stand idly by while their college careers end on a play they could have made with a little bit of hustle. Juniors such as Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson might not have quite the same sense of urgency, but they remember the heartbreak of last year's national championship game just as well as their elder statesmen.
It hasn't always been pretty, but North Carolina's goal was to win the title it knows it should have won last April. Just 40 minutes and one former Cinderella story stand between the Tar Heels and that feat.
Gonzaga seeking more than just its first Final Four banner
After 18 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament without a single Final Four appearance, Gonzaga finally got the job done. At long last, we can talk about this team being a serious threat to reach the Final Four without having it dismissed as hot air about a team that has never done it before.
Now that the Zags are here, though, wouldn't it be something if they won it all?
Gonzaga has been the best team in the country for the past several months, but it'll be one heck of a historical underdog Monday night.
Each of the last 26 national championships has been won by a team from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC or American. Even if you don't consider Gonzaga a mid-major team, there's no debate that the WCC is a mid-major conference. A national championship would be one small step for Gonzaga, one giant leap for mid-majors.
Redemption for the Tar Heels
If you think you're tired of seeing Kris Jenkins' national championship-winning shot from last April, imagine how the players on North Carolina's roster must feel.
Departed seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige will never have the chance to get redemption for the way last season ended, but everyone else on this team has been striving all year with the goal of getting back to this spot and rewriting the script.
It can't possibly be as dramatic as last year's game, but the Tar Heels would be more than happy with any sort of margin of victory. If they come up short, losing to Gonzaga might sting even more than the loss to Villanova.
Could Mark Few join the 38-win club?
With limited exceptions, teams didn't used to play as many games per season as they do now. Case in point: UCLA went 30-0 in each of its four undefeated seasons under John Wooden, and it wasn't until the 2005-06 season that the Bruins played more than 33 games in a year.
As a result, there are only 12 coaches in college basketball history who have won at least 36 games in a single season, and most of them have come in the past decade. But Mark Few is already at 37 wins and is looking to join John Calipari (2008, 2012 and 2015) as the only coach to ever win 38 games in a season.
Say what you will about the level of competition in the WCC, but Few already has the fourth-highest career winning percentage (81.8) of all time. He is No. 1 among guys who have coached in the past 45 years. Perhaps winning a national championship would finally put him in the conversation as one of the best coaches of this generation.
Or could Roy Williams join the three-titles club?
No one is ever going to match John Wooden's mark of 10 national championships, but Roy Williams isn't that far removed from getting to No. 2 on that all-time list.
With a win over Gonzaga, he would become just the sixth men's college basketball coach with at least three titles, joining Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski (five), Adolph Rupp (four), Bob Knight (three) and Jim Calhoun (three). Williams is already alone in fourth place on the list of Final Four appearances. His nine trips to the national semifinals trail only Wooden (12), Krzyzewski (12) and Dean Smith (11).
Williams is often mentioned as a great current college basketball coach, but, for some bizarre reason, the man with 815 career wins is rarely mentioned as one of the greatest of all time. He belongs in that conversation, and a third national championship would get him there.
Win or lose Monday, get used to the idea of Williams as one of the all-time greats. If he sticks around for at least three more years—he turns 67 in August, and Jim Boeheim is still trucking at 72—he's going to finish his career as the third-winningest coach in men's history.
Stars to Watch
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga
Tournament Stats: 17.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.6 SPG
The biggest reason the Bulldogs had difficulty scoring against South Dakota State and West Virginia is because Williams-Goss couldn't buy an open jumper. In each of Gonzaga's other three games, the go-to guy has scored at least 20 points while contributing in several other areas. Williams-Goss became the first player in Gonzaga history to score a point in the Final Four, and its only hope of securing a first national championship is to get one more gem from him.
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Tournament Stats: 20.2 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.6 SPG, 41.7% 3PT
Most of the Tar Heels have been wildly inconsistent in the tournament, but Jackson—as he has been over the past three months—has been their offensive metronome. He has scored between 15-24 points in each tournament game and should be counted on for that many in the title game against Gonzaga. Whether it takes him 12 or 20 shots could determine whether the Tar Heels complete their quest for redemption.
Zach Collins, Gonzaga
Tournament Stats: 6.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.0 BPG
Collins struggled in the second weekend of the tournament. He was ineffective against West Virginia's pressure and managed to foul out in just 13 minutes of action against Xavier. As a result, the overall numbers for Gonzaga's sixth man don't look great, but we saw in the Final Four what he is capable of doing. Collins was everywhere against South Carolina, finishing with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots. Another game like that Monday night, and he just might be a lottery pick.
Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
Tournament Stats: 13.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 1.4 SPG
Jackson is the Tar Heel destined for NBA stardom, but there is no chance they would still be in the tournament without Meeks. On a night where Isaiah Hicks and Joel Berry shot a combined 3-of-26 from the field, Meeks dominated Oregon in the Final Four. The big man matched a career high with 25 points and got eight of his 14 rebounds on the offensive glass, including the one that sealed the victory. He's been solid the entire tournament, but he found another gear against the Ducks.
Underrated Players to Watch
Tony Bradley, North Carolina
Tournament Stats: 5.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG
It's a bit silly to call a 5-star freshman, per Scout.com, an underrated guy to watch, but Bradley has barely even been a part-time player lately, averaging just 9.0 minutes in the last four games. But in what figures to be one brutal battle of the frontcourts, it's going to be all hands on deck. Even if he only plays a few minutes, how Bradley fares on both ends of the floor against the likes of Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins, Killian Tillie and Johnathan Williams III could be huge.
Silas Melson, Gonzaga
Tournament Stats: 5.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.4 APG
Melson is the one piece of Gonzaga's eight-man rotation who no one ever seems to talk about, but he is a crucial reserve who has scored in all but one game this season. He drained a pair of three-pointers early in the first half against South Carolina, setting the stage for the Bulldogs to go 9-of-19 from beyond the arc. He also had four boards, three dimes and a pair of rejections.
Nate Britt, North Carolina
Tournament Stats: 5.2 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.8 RPG
It was clear Saturday night that the six-day layoff between games wasn't nearly enough for Joel Berry's ankles to fully heal, which means Britt should be headed for a lot of playing time once again. The senior doesn't take many shots and is primarily out there for his on-ball defense, but he has scored at least five points in four of UNC's tournament games. It's hardly a stretch to suggest he could be an X-factor.
Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
Tournament Stats: 5.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.2 APG
Perkins has been a ghost for most of the tournament, including putting a bagel in the scoring column against South Carolina in the Final Four. But he was Gonzaga's primary lead guard last year as a freshman and is still one of its better perimeter shooters at 39.5 percent. He doesn't shoot a ton, but he could alter the outcome by draining a couple of triples.
Gonzaga's Blueprint to Beating North Carolina
It won't be easy, but if Gonzaga can do these four things, the Bulldogs will be the 2017 national champions.
1. Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins win the battle of the bigs
North Carolina offensive rebounds are going to be a problem, but Gonzaga can neutralize it by being just as dominant in the frontcourt. When Karnowski is in the game, put his elite interior passing skills to good use. When Collins is out there, get him the ball and have him seek out contact. And when both centers are in the game, sit back and enjoy the high-low action. If Collins blocks a few shots along the way, even better.
2. Avoid getting sped up
Gonzaga loves to push the pace when it can, but few teams can get out and run quite like the Tar Heels. In a half-court game, the Bulldogs should have the edge. They have one of the stingiest defenses in recent memory, and their shooting percentages are better than North Carolina's. But if this thing becomes a track meet, Gonzaga's big men will get winded in a hurry and the Tar Heels might run circles around the Bulldogs.
3. Protect the passing lanes
One of the biggest keys to Gonzaga's success on defense is limiting assists. The Zags don't often gamble for steals, but they make ball movement a chore for opponents. However, that was also one of Butler's strengths, and the Tar Heels torched those Bulldogs for 92 points and 22 assists in the Sweet 16. Gonzaga needs to do a better job of denying passes and making sure help defenders don't overcommit.
4. Get Nigel Williams-Goss going early
Williams-Goss has scored at least 20 points in six of his last eight games and has been the undisputed star of most of them. In the WCC championship against Saint Mary's, he had 22 points and six each of rebounds, assists and steals. He hasn't recorded any triple-doubles this season, but he is a stat-sheet stuffer who does a lot of the "other" things when he's able to establish his scoring prowess early in the game. Get Williams-Goss a couple of clean looks before the first media timeout and hope he delivers from that point onward.
North Carolina's Blueprint to Beating Gonzaga
It won't be easy, but if North Carolina can do these four things, the Tar Heels will be the 2017 national champions.
1. Own the offensive glass
Regardless of the opponent, this is North Carolina's primary goal in every game. Led by Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye, the Tar Heels create more second-chance opportunities than any team in the country. And Gonzaga hasn't exactly been protecting the defensive glass lately. Each of its last four opponents has grabbed at least 12 offensive boards, including 20 by West Virginia.
2. Avoid early frontcourt foul trouble
This is also a major goal of every game for North Carolina, but it's particularly crucial against a Gonzaga team that has one of the best interior attacks in the nation. If Meeks, Bradley or Isaiah Hicks take themselves out of the game by being too physical, it limits UNC's ability to bake its bread on the offensive glass while opening the door for Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins to score at will.
Even if it means giving up the occasional easy bucket, the big men of the Tar Heels should do everything in their power to avoid drawing whistles for the first 10 minutes.
3. Get something useful out of Joel Berry
Early in the year, Berry was North Carolina's National Player of the Year candidate. Due to a few ankle injuries, though, he hasn't even been an average player in the tournament. According to KenPom, Berry has posted an O-rating of 87 or worse in four of his last five games. He had four such games in the entire 2015-16 season. At this point, the Tar Heels would almost be better off seeing what Nate Britt and Stilman White can do with more playing time.
4. Hope Justin Jackson has one more defensive gem up his sleeve
In the Elite Eight, Malik Monk never got going because Jackson kept him from getting any open looks. Likewise, Oregon's Tyler Dorsey shot just 3-of-11 from the field against the Tar Heels while Jackson used every inch of his 6'8" frame to keep Mr. March from having any space. For most of the season, Jackson was somewhere between a non-factor and a liability on defense, but he has showcased his potential as a 3-and-D guy for the NBA. If he is able to shut down either Jordan Mathews or Nigel Williams-Goss, advantage Tar Heels.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.