NCAA Championship Game 2017: Star Players Who Will Decide UNC vs. Gonzaga

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2017

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 24: Joel Berry II #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels handles the ball against Kamar Baldwin #3 of the Butler Bulldogs in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at FedExForum on March 24, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Star players have defined the 2017 NCAA tournament, which will culminate in a title showdown between top seeds when North Carolina and Gonzaga get together. 

Only looking at the Final Four, guys like Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks paced the high-flying, third-seeded Oregon Ducks. SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell dominated the bracket while leading a true Cinderella, seventh-seeded South Carolina.

But even those stars weren't enough to contain the star-studded rosters flaunted by the Tar Heels and Bulldogs. These aren't one-and-done powerhouses but experienced squads capable of imposing their will on either end of the court and getting huge games from any of the starting five.

Narrowing down the crop of candidates to figure out which star players might decide the title encounter isn't easy, but let's take a look at the top names below after a review of the schedule and bracket.

        

March Madness 2017 Bracket and Title Game Info

MatchupDateTime (ET)TelevisionOdds
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 1 North CarolinaMonday, April 39:20 p.m.CBSNorth Carolina (-2)
ESPN.com.

      

Star Players to Watch

Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga

On paper, Nigel Williams-Goss is the player who will need to pace the Bulldogs (eighth in ESPN's RPI rankings) if the program is to grab a title Monday night.

Williams-Goss paced the Bulldogs during the regular season at 16.9 points per game yet has scored 10 or fewer points in two of the team's five tournament games.

Granted, the other three came in at 20 or more, with the junior making some notable history during a 23-point outburst while taking down the Gamecocks in the Final Four, as captured by ESPN Stats & Info:

If Gonzaga's vaunted defense doesn't step up and slow the Tar Heels, the team will look to Williams-Goss for the answer.

It's a ton of pressure, though Williams-Goss has shown he can step up more often than not.

      

Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina

Kennedy Meeks only sat third in scoring for the Tar Heels during the regular season at 12.7 points per game.

Against a defensive powerhouse such as Gonzaga, though, it is Meeks who will have to bang down low and counteract the toughest frontcourt the Tar Heels have faced all year.

As if preparing for this task, it was Meeks who went off for 25 points in the 77-76 escape of third-seeded Oregon, adding 14 boards, a block and three steals to his impressive day.

In other words, Williams-Goss wasn't the only player making some notable historical headway during the semifinals:

North Carolina will need Meeks to be much more than a simple presence on the defensive end of the court. Gonzaga ranks 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom.com, meaning he'll need to help the Tar Heels live up to their sixth billing in the same category if the Bulldogs get hot.

Meeks proved he can do so in the Final Four. He might need to carry the Tar Heels on his back once more.

      

Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga

Przemek Karnowski is a big—literally—part of the reason the Bulldogs rank first in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.

Karnowski, 7'1" and 300 pounds, averaged 12.3 points, 5.8 boards and 0.9 blocks per game during the regular season. He's scored double digits in three tournament games so far and otherwise acted as a presence teams can't move around, hence no opponent even shooting 41 percent from the field against the Bulldogs this bracket.

North Carolina is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, so limiting the Tar Heels' second-chance opportunities will be a focal point for Karnowski Monday.

Impacting shots at the rim and ruining North Carolina's rhythm would simply be a bonus, one capable of winning a title. Provided he stays out of foul trouble, Karnowski will have a major influence on the outcome.

       

Joel Berry II, North Carolina

No player is more important in Monday's title game than Joel Berry II.

Berry is one of the best guards in the nation, yet consistent ankle issues have hampered his bracket performance. He only managed 13 total points over North Carolina's first two wins then exploded for 26 in a 92-80 rout of fourth-seeded Baylor in the Sweet 16.

In true up-and-down fashion, Berry suffered another setback and managed 11 points apiece over the Elite Eight and Final Four. In those wins against second-seeded Kentucky and third-seeded Oregon, respectively, he only managed five total assists and 2-of-13 shooting from deep.

CBS Sports' Seth Davis asked the obvious question:

Berry not only has to play sound defense on a pair of shaky angles, he has to keep penetrating into the lane and collapsing defenses in an effort to get others around him high-percentage looks.

Doing so in a lane clogged by Karnowski and an elite defense while fully healthy isn't easy. Berry making it happen given his situation would be certainly worth a title.

       

Advanced metrics courtesy of ESPN.com. Odds via OddsShark.com.

Related

    5-Star PG Reclassifies to Class of 2019

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    5-Star PG Reclassifies to Class of 2019

    ScoutHoops.com
    via ScoutHoops.com

    5 Coaching Hires That Will Have the Biggest Impacts

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    5 Coaching Hires That Will Have the Biggest Impacts

    NCAA.com
    via NCAA.com

    Ogunbowale Buzzer-Beater Wins ESPY for Play of the Year

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    Ogunbowale Buzzer-Beater Wins ESPY for Play of the Year

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    John Beilein Signs Rollover Contract Extension

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    John Beilein Signs Rollover Contract Extension

    Dylan Burkhardt
    via UM Hoops.com