UNC vs. Gonzaga
When: 9:20 p.m. Monday
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
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Projected starting lineups
G Nigel Williams-Goss 16.9 ppg, 4.7 apg
G Josh Perkins 8.0 ppg, 3.1 apg
G Jordan Mathews 10.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg
F Johnathan Williams 10.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg
F Przemek Karnowski 12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg
North Carolina (32-7)
G Joel Berry 14.5 ppg, 3.6 apg
G Theo Pinson 6.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg
G Justin Jackson 18.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg
F Isaiah Hicks 11.8 ppg, 5.64 rpg
F Kennedy Meeks 12.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg
Matchup to watch
Joel Berry’s injured ankles get more attention and Luke Maye’s shot will live forever, but the Tar Heels aren’t in the title game without senior forward Kennedy Meeks.
While Maye shone and Berry labored, Meeks was the deciding factor in the regional final win over Kentucky. He had 17 rebounds, blocked four shots and out-played Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo.
On Saturday against Oregon, Meeks simply turned in the performance of the tournament and his up-and-down career. He scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass.
Oregon, missing its top forward, had no answer for Meeks. Gonzaga, with the burly Przemek Karnowski (7-1, 300 pounds) and the talented Zach Collins (7-0, 230), actually has two big bodies to go at Meeks. Both Karnowski and Collins, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds off the bench in the Zags’ win over South Carolina on Saturday, are skilled enough on offense to get Meeks into foul trouble.
UNC, which has had its supporting players step up in the tournament (Maye, Theo Pinson and Nate Britt) needs the version of Isaiah Hicks, who scored 21 and 19 against Duke in the span of six days in March, to show up on Monday.
UNC wins if ...
The Tar Heels embrace the moment. This is what they’ve wanted all year, and this is what they’ve played for all year. A win doesn’t erase what Kris Jenkins and Villanova did to UNC last year in the national championship game, but it gives UNC its own moment.
You don’t come this far and not finish the job. The good news for UNC is Gonzaga is a similarly structured and wired team. The Zags are a traditional inside-out team. They’re going to play the way UNC wants to play. There are very few teams capable of beating the Heels at their own game.
The trick here is UNC has to play its game. That means Berry has to gut through his injuries and play a smart game. If he can’t find his shot, he has to make sure his counterpart, Nigel Williams-Goss, doesn’t take over the game.
That means Justin Jackson has to get the ball late and be given a chance to close out the game. UNC lost Jackson a bit at the end of both the Oregon and Kentucky games. Your best players have to be your best players, and that has been Jackson for UNC.
Let him close it out and take Roy Williams to his third NCAA title and UNC to its sixth.
Gonzaga wins if ...
The best way to beat North Carolina, since 1986 anyway, is to trade 3s for 2s. In UNC’s most recent three losses (two to Duke, at Virginia), they were outscored 99-39 at the 3-point line.
Kentucky (7-for-19) and Oregon (7-for-26) did not shoot well enough from 3 to knock North Carolina out of the tournament. Consider those two games were decided by a total of three points.
Gonzaga doesn’t use the 3 as its primary means of scoring, but in its biggest regular-season wins (Arizona, Florida, Iowa State) it was 28-of-57 (49.1 percent) from the 3-point line. The Zags went 12-of-24 in the regional final win over Xavier and 9-of-19 in Saturday’s win over South Carolina.
Jordan Mathews, a grad transfer from Cal, is Gonzaga’s best shooter. It was his clutch 3, with 50 seconds left, that carried the Zags past West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Mathews is 15-of-40 from the 3-point line in the NCAA tournament. He will have to shoot better than that for the Zags to beat UNC.
Karnowski will have to neutralize Meeks, and Williams-Goss will have to outplay Berry. Not an impossible task for what statistically has been the best team in college basketball all season, but also not an easy one.