And then were two. And one. Two teams still playing at the end of a long college basketball season. And one game left to play: the NCAA tournament championship game here in Houston, where North Carolina and Villanova will play for the championship.
Our coverage leading into this tonight includes:
--A story about – who else? – Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. For the UNC seniors a four-year college journey comes down to this. As Paige said, “there's no tomorrow.”
--From Luke DeCock, a strong column about Roy Williams, who has been himself this week. Williams along this run has been inspired by many things – criticism from his own fans included.
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--Speaking of Williams, his behavior has become something of a national storyline here this week, as the national media becomes more familiar with Ol' Roy.
--UNC likes to work its offense from the inside out. Villanova, meanwhile, is content to shoot. A lot. A story that gives some perspective on the Wildcats.
And some quick pregame thoughts:
1. Roy Williams has been his usual self this week – and not any tighter or crankier or ornerier.
It has become a national storyline here at the Final Four, Williams' one-liners and barbs and his back and forth with reporters. Here's the thing, though: Williams is pretty much always this way. It's not necessarily a good thing. It's not a bad thing. It just … is.
Williams at times this week has gone into Ol' Roy mode, telling reporters he doesn't want to be asked about retirement, saying he'd rather talk about basketball than UNC's NCAA investigation. But there's an element of what-do-you-expect-him-to-say here.
Of course Williams doesn't want to say the same things he has been saying – that he's not going anywhere – about retirement. And of course he doesn't want to talk about the NCAA case. For one, the case is at a complete standstill right now, and has been for months. So there's nothing new happening with it. And two, Williams has answered questions about the case. He spent basically his entire preseason ACC media day session answering questions about it before the 2014-15 season.
Even so, on a national stage like the Final Four those things – retirement and the investigation – are going to be asked about it. And Williams has handled it the way he normally does. To people who aren't around Williams a lot, it's understandable how his demeanor has been received. To those of us who cover him regularly, though, this is nothing new. And Williams' antics here – if they can be called that – aren't even among his most memorable of the season.
2. To win the national championship UNC will have to beat the best team it has faced.
At least, that is, according to kenpom.com. Villanova ranks first in Ken Pomeroy's statistical-based rankings, while UNC is No. 2. And so this is the ideal national championship match-up. This game, according to kenpom.com, features the nation's two most efficient offenses. The Wildcats have an advantage defensively, according to the numbers, and rank 6th nationally defensively. UNC is 23rd there.
The three keys to the game for UNC, as I see them:
--Exploit and capitalize on the rebounding advantage.
If there's a major statistical that's in UNC's favor it's in rebounding. Villanova isn't a great rebounding team – either offensively or defensively – while the Tar Heels rank third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. That should help UNC counter Villanova's slight overall defensive advantage, because UNC should have its share of second-chance opportunities.
--Defend, defend, defend.
UNC has often been very good defensively during the final month of the season. The Tar Heels will have to be on their game on Monday night – especially on the perimeter and on the wing. Villanova's top five offensive players all stand 6-foot-6 or shorter. The Wildcats shoot a bunch of 3s. They're kind of a run-and-gun shooting team.
--Seniors need to shine.
To me it comes down to this for the Tar Heels: If Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige are at their best, UNC will win. At their best, the Tar Heels have always been the best team in the country. And they've been at their best with Johnson and Paige both playing at a high level. This is their final college game. One last time to shine.
3. With a victory tonight, this UNC team takes its place in history.
The Tar Heels are seeking their sixth NCAA tournament championship. They won it in 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009. And now are in position to win it in 2016. UNC's five NCAA championships rank third all time. Duke and Indiana have also won five NCAA championships. And so a victory tonight would move UNC to sole possession of third place, behind UCLA's 11 national championships and Kentucky's eight.
Regardless of what happens tonight the legacy of this UNC team is likely to endure. But a national championship would take it to a higher level. This UNC team won’t be remembered as its best of all the time or most talented of all time. But a win tonight might just deliver the Tar Heels their sweetest, most satisfying national title of all time.
You could make the argument that the ‘82 championship is the most important in school history. It was Dean Smith’s first. In some ways it launched Michael Jordan’s ascent, and career. And all of UNC’s national championship teams have been revered in Chapel Hill. A national championship this season, though, amid all the drama and trouble of the past several seasons, would provide a cathartic moment.
See you at NRG Stadium …