GLENDALE, Ariz. – North Carolina and Gonzaga have relied on imposing frontcourts to provide decided advantages during their march to the national championship game, so it’s only appropriate this battle of the bigs will likely determine which program lifts the trophy on Monday night.
“A very big low post matchup,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said on Sunday.
Kennedy Meeks, who is averaging 13.2 points and 11.8 rebounds in NCAA Tournament play, is the headliner down low for the Tar Heels. Isaiah Hicks has struggled of late, although Luke Maye has elevated his play to mitigate that loss in production. Freshman center Tony Bradley has quietly had a solid tournament, averaging 5.8 points on 76.5 percent shooting and 4.2 rebounds.
Gonzaga’s primary post options are even more ample in size, starting with 7-foot-1, 300-pound senior center Przemek Karnowski. Johnathan Williams is a versatile four-man with plenty of athleticism, while McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins – another seven-footer – was dominant off the bench in the Final Four win over South Carolina, posting a stat line of 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks. French native Killian Tillie is a fourth interior option off the bench.
“They have more size than anybody we played all year long,” Williams said. “Florida State was big, long, but maybe not truly as much size and coming off the bench too, other than [Michael] Ojo. So our big guys are going to be challenged a lot in different ways than they have been before.”
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few agreed, saying, “I think both these teams are probably facing, for the first time, depth that mirrors each other inside.”
Despite elite options on the perimeter – Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews for the Zags, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson for the Tar Heels – both teams initiate their offenses from the inside. Gonzaga utilizes a ton of ball screens, and when the ball is thrown into the past, Karnowski is a skilled passer who can locate cutters and open shooters on the perimeter. UNC’s ability to disrupt Gonzaga’s comfort level down low is a critical element in limiting the Bulldogs’ potent offense (119.3 adjusted efficiency, 12th nationally).
“I think just making them work hard for the ball is the biggest thing,” Meeks said. “Whether that’s getting down quicker than they are and establishing position on the defensive end. Those guys are great at backing guys down and good at making shots and making angles. I would say the biggest thing we’ll focus on is trying to eliminate them from getting as many post touches as possible.”
While Williams rarely plays Meeks and Bradley together, Few has made a point to get both seven-footers on the floor at the same time to lock down the paint. It was an especially effective maneuver against the Gamecocks, although Meeks welcomed the pending physical play. Hicks, on the other hand, was stoked about not having to contend with a stretch four running around the court.
"It's like playing our team in practice with two bigs,” Hicks said. “For us, it's a good thing. You don’t have to chase a perimeter player around. It just depends on whose team is dominating inside."
Rebounding is the primary key, as UNC leads the nation in rebound margin (plus-12.7) and Gonzaga ranks 11th (plus-7.2). The Tar Heels are rebounding 41.7 percent of their misses (tops in the country), although the Bulldogs have been effective on the defensive glass (26.1 percent, 47th).
Foul trouble is also a concern. Karnowski is averaging three fouls per game in NCAA Tournament play, while the inside joke in the Tar Heel locker room has long been that Hicks starts games with two fouls.
Both programs are built upon a strong foundation in the paint, so it’s only fitting this final game of the 2016-17 college basketball season offers such a compelling matchup down low.