The conclusion of the greatest tournament in American sports is finally upon us. Tonight, UNC will look to avenge their heart-wrenching loss in the final of last season against Villanova. This year, they will have to play a Gonzaga team that seems to be in their own year of destiny. After missing four straight free throws against Oregon, they snuck into their second straight final. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is in their first Final Four in program history. They weathered a late storm from South Carolina to continue their Cinderella run out of the West Coast Conference. This matchup is exactly what I was hoping for when I saw the Final Four, and the individual matchups are intriguing all over the floor. Here are the three most important.
Berry vs Goss
Both Gonzaga and UNC go as their veteran guards go. For North Carolina, Joel Berry fit in and brilliantly filled the hole that Marcus Paige left. Throughout the year, he has been hitting big shots and always making the right play. Along with Nate Britt and Kenny Williams, Berry is one of only three players that logs more than ten minutes for North Carolina in the backcourt. He is second on the team in scoring and three-point shooting, and leads them in assists and free-throw shooting.
For Gonzaga, Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss has been as good as advertised. He is a second team All-American and first team all-body control. Good luck getting this guy off of his shot when he gets in the lane. He established a backcourt presence throughout the year that Gonzaga hasn’t had since Kevin Pangos. Also, he is snatching six boards per game, which will be big in a game where rebounding will be so important.
Look for these two guys to have a bigger impact than expected. Most of this game is expected to be played in the paint since both teams seem to have an endless supply of giants. Still, whoever gets the better play out of their point guards in this game will probably come away with the National Championship.
Meeks vs Karnowski
This is the most exciting individual matchup of the day by far. The second Jordan Bell forgot how to box out and UNC eeked out a victory, all I could think about was the post-banging that would ensue between senior big men Kennedy Meeks and Przemek Karnowski. Meeks is coming off a game where he absolutely feasted for 25 points on 11-13 shooting and 14 rebounds in what I firmly believe was one of the easiest games of his career. It seemed like none of his shots were contested, and he continued to get completely free on the weak side for offensive boards. Karnowski finished the game with 13, 5 and a scratched eye ball in a game where he was bullied by Chris Silva at times.
Karnowski is going to have to play much better than that if the Zags want to win. Believe it or not, he is the third-leading rebounder on Gonzaga, which is not going to cut it in this game. The battle of the boards is going to be huge, and this match up will be particularly large. Karnowski can not allow Meeks to have another 14 boards, and he will have to muster up more than five of his own. The passing will be there for the bearded giant. The lefty sky hook will still be 100%. But, if Karnowski really wants to impact this game, it is going to have to be on the boards.
Jackson vs whoever the fuck is going to guard Jackson
Before the tournament, I wrote an article with every title contenders’ biggest flaw. In it, I established Gonzaga’s issue as a lack of a true wing. Jonathan Williams is the only player that logs minutes for the Zags that is listed as a SF. He has proven to be a good defender and leads the Zags in rebounding, but he doesn’t quite match up with first team All-American and likely lottery pick Justin Jackson.
Jackson is averaging more than 18 per game by roasting defenses from virtually every spot on the floor. He is the player of the year in the best conference in America and a first team All-American. I think this is the biggest matchup to look out for in terms of what can truly dominate Gonzaga. Everywhere else, the Zags can match up with the powerhouse Tar Heels. But, out on the wing, it could be a long day for whoever has to cover Justin Jackson.