Sunday, April 2, 2017

UNC on doorstep of redemption as Gonzaga stands between Tar Heels and national title

Kennedy Meeks' rebound in final seconds brought North Carolina back to national championship game, where Tar Heels look to get redemption for last year's bitter loss. (Photo by Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated)

Playing for a national championship for the second consecutive year, North Carolina has faced a number of daunting tests in their path to the precipice of an NCAA title. None of those, however, compare to what lies ahead for the Tar Heels as they take the University of Phoenix Stadium floor one final time in the 2016-17 season, with the Gonzaga Bulldogs on the opposite bench.

The mid-major in name who operates like a national juggernaut in both style and results, Gonzaga is far from the plucky underdog that would make Monday's championship clash the proverbial David vs. Goliath showdown. Instead, the Zags; beaten just once in what stands as the most successful campaign in program history regardless of the final score, represent more of a mirror image than meets the eye of the casual fan.

"They're very similar to us," head coach Roy Williams assessed Sunday as UNC (32-7) embarks on the last conquest standing in the way of a sixth NCAA Tournament championship and seventh national title in school history. "They play two post players, they've got three players on the perimeter, any of the three of them can be the point. They believe in running, they believe in getting the ball inside, they change their defenses a little, but not much, they're mostly a man-to-man team. So we're very similar."

"They have more size than anybody we played all year long," he added, citing the massive presence of 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski and freshman Zach Collins, a fellow seven-footer, in the paint. "Our big guys are going to be challenged a lot differently than they've been before."

The No. 1 seed in the West Regional and top-rated team in KenPom metrics, Gonzaga (37-1) goes much longer and deeper than their twin towers. Jordan Mathews and Johnathan Williams are both formidable offensive weapons, as are guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. However, the biggest advantage in Mark Few's arsenal lies in the point guard spot, where Nigel Williams-Goss has enjoyed a National Player of the Year-caliber junior season, and could benefit from a compromised Joel Berry II. But when asked about his health and availability, UNC's junior point guard offered an optimistic outlook.

"I actually feel better," he said, updating the progress of his two sprained ankles. "I woke up this morning and didn't have any stiffness. That was my biggest worry. They're feeling pretty good. I know we have practice and everything, but we got the rest of the day to be able to do some rehab, and we already started this morning. Anything that I do will just help a little bit more."

Inevitably, the end of last year's championship game and Kris Jenkins' three-pointer to give Villanova the national title at UNC's expense was revisited in Sunday's pregame press conference, where Williams admitted that while he may never watch that game again, he recognized the potential for redemption in his current team, one that occupies every thought as he leads them into battle once more.

"I knew it was going in, I didn't even keep looking," the Hall of Fame coach said of Jenkins' buzzer-beater one year ago this Tuesday. "And so for me, it was one of the most difficult things to handle as a coach, to have something snatched; an opportunity to try to play a few more minutes, and have it snatched away. It was the most difficult time I've ever had as a coach, because I felt so inadequate."

"But I really tried to concentrate on coaching this team, and I really have not gone to bed every night thinking about that game," he reflected. "I've gone to bed every night trying to think how I could coach this team to the best of my ability."

"I've tried to coach this team, and we met at my house, I think, August 22. I told them that I thought I had in front of me the kind of guys that could win a national championship, so I've tried to focus on that, our dreams and our goals."

No comments:

Post a Comment