This year’s national championship may not feature Kansas, Duke or Kentucky. It may not have the potential top pick in the NBA draft and it may not be the championship that sports fans wanted to see. However, it’s the championship that we needed to see.
UNC looks to avenge their lose in last years National Championship game afer a last second shot by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins (Photo/Greg Nelson).
It’s the championship that we as kids all dream of playing in. We may not be participating in it, but we get to witness it. Two teams with everything to prove, chasing their dreams of being a national champion.
Granted, both teams are in two very different scenarios. On one side you have UNC coming off of potentially the most devastating loss in national championship history last year. On the other hand you have a Gonzaga team looking to make school history and solidify themselves in college basketball history.
UNC is largely the same team that understandably went sobbing into the locker room after last year’s national championship. After Kris Jenkins of Villanova hit what many to believe to be the most iconic shot in NCAA championship game history, UNC was left devastated. We saw Villanova cutting down the nets, not UNC.
They’re not the only one’s who believe they have something to prove.
Gonzaga’s basketball program has been criticized for not playing in a tough conference. Those on the east coast, who don’t get to see them play on a normal basis, believe the program could be bad for basketball. Now after years and years of Gonzaga disappointment in the NCAA tournament, they are finally here.
A league dominated by the Duke’s and Kentucky’s one-and-done players, UNC and Gonzaga tend to do it a little bit differently.
UNC has six returning key players, all upperclassmen, and all apart of last year’s team. Instead of dwelling on the past, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson continue to look forward.
When asked about last year’s national championship, Pinson said, “It keeps giving us ammo, it makes us want to get here again and again.”
Gonzaga players celebrate after their Final Four victory over South Carolina Saturday (Photo/ David J. Phillip).
Gonzaga, on the other hand, has their own motivation factor. Despite the motivation of making school history, the Bulldogs look to their own past for a little motivation.
Gonzaga has players from all over the globe, including Przemek Karnowski from Poland, freshman Rui Hachimura from Japan and Killian Tillie, who is a freshman from France. In order to stay in contact, what else would a bunch of young men in this day in age do? Start a group chat.
Some of it’s inside jokes most people wouldn’t understand. Other times it’s just to stay in touch. It is also for motivation. For instance, junior guard and the leader of this Bulldog team, Nigel Williams-Goss, posted the infamous video of sobbing Adam Morrison after Gonzaga’s loss to UCLA in the Sweet 16 in 2006 and simply wrote “Not this year fellas.”
The tiny Jesuit school versus an all powerful college basketball franchise, it sounds like a David and Goliath scenario. But it’s not.
These are the two best teams in college basketball, and we get it for the last game of college basketball this year. North Carolina is 40 minutes away from redemption. Gonzaga is 40 minutes away from program history. We can’t ask for anything better than that.
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It is nearly impossible to go undefeated in a season. The last team to do it and win the NCAA Tournament was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. They were led by legendary Hall of Fame coach, Bob Knight, they are one of 19 teams to even reach the tournament undefeated. The most recent is the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats that fell just short in the Final Four. Wichita State also did it in 2014, but they lost in the second round to a different pack of Wildcats en route to the title game.
There are so many things that can happen in a season. Injuries can instantly derail a team’s season. Players can have acdemic issues as South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell did (and the team is still undefeated with him in the lineup). Naturally, players are human. As good as they are it is difficult to win night in and night out because there is bound to be at least one off night. It is a tall task to make it to March undefeated and it will not happen this year.
With Villanova’s loss to Butler, that leaves two out of the 351 division one teams undefeated. The Baylor Bears (14-0) and the Gonzaga Bulldogs (15-0). Each are currently in the AP top five due to their spotless records. The question is, when will that first loss come?
Baylor has had a stellar season considering the turmoil of their campus over the past few months. What is not in turmoil is their talented roster. Not to mention the fact that even with the roster they had the team was not picked to be as high as they are now. The preseason conference poll slotted the Bears at fifth in their own conference.
There are several facets to the Bears game that have gotten them to this point. Firstly, they are very efficient. As a team they shoot 49.9% from the field. Part of that efficiency comes from the team’s depth. The roster is not very full, 11 players have logged minutes this year, but 10 players play more than 10 minutes per game. Nine of those average more than five points per game. Jake Lindsey is the tenth player and he contributes 4.8 points, 2.6 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game in support of leading point guard Manu Lecomte.
Lecomte is a Miami transfer and is flourishing in Waco. He has 11.4 points per game coupled with 5.1 assist per game. His success is aided by his top scorers Jonathan Motley and Allerik Freeman. Each of these three players has managed double digit points (16.0 for Motely) in under 30 minutes of play.
Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. (0) is one of the most prolific shot blockers in the country and is the teeth of the Bear’s defense. (photo courtesy of pickandroll.com)
What is more impressive is the defensive effect that each player has on the team. All ten players that play significant minutes have a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus. This means that each player has a positive net effect on defense being in the game. The one player that it is impossible not to mention when it comes to Baylor’s tenacious defense is Jo Lual-Acuil. The seven foot monster smashes a whopping 3.6 blocks per game, good enough for third in the country. He has reached that mark in only 25.8 minutes per contest along with 11.1 points and 7.6 rebounds. Lual-Acuil’s high production in limited minutes is a perfect example of how Scott Drew’s use of the whole roster keeps his team energized.
That is what got them to this point. They will not reach the end of the season with a zero in the loss column. Baylor has taken down some giants on its way to current record. They have taken down Oregon who is now on track in addition to Xavier and Louisville. Conference play in the Big 12, however, is no joke. Baylor will finish the season with a minimum of two losses in the Conference.
The good news for all of this is that we will not have to wait long for this team to drop its first game. Already nearly faltering against an average Iowa State team, the Bears come home to Oklahoma State and then travel to West Virginia. This is the fun part about the Mountaineers being in the Big 12, teams have to go halfway across the country to play them. Travel has its wear and tear on players.
So after January 10th, only one team will remain undefeated in the NCAA. West Virginia and Bob Huggins are notorious for their full court defensive pressure that has caused 347 turnovers this season, best in the nation. They have only allowed 60.8 points per game. The really scary part? The team is fifth in the nation in scoring behind eight players over 7.0 points per game for a total of 90.7 per game. The fatigue of the Bears and the relentlessness of Huggins squad will result in Baylor’s first loss.
At the beginning of the year Gonzaga was supposed to be good. They also had a few games that were supposed to challenge them on paper. Gonzaga has beaten all of the bigger conference teams on their schedule: Florida, Iowa State, an Arizona team on a neutral floor that is now coming around, Washington and Tennessee.
Karnowski is the main reason for Gonzaga’s offensive flow. (Photo courtesy of SI.com)
They have done it with a depth created by returning players, transfers and recruits. Nigel Williams-Goss has emerged as one of the most crucial transfers in the nation sitting at team bests of 13.8 points and 4.7 assists along with 5.7 rebounds. The versatile guard is a staple for the offense and has played the most minutes on the team thus far. To help him he has the interior presence of Przemek Karnowski, one of the best passing big men in the country. He has the highest usage percentage on the team (for players that qualify). Karnowski is the center of the offense for the team and his passing threat is a great creator. It helps Williams-Goss and fellow double digit scorer Josh Perkins to get their opportunities.
All of this action has allowed supporting players such as Cal transfer Jordan Mathews to flourish. Mathews is now shooting 42.5% from behind the arc. Freshman Zach Collins and Killian Tillie also benefit from the lack of defensive attention. Collins is currently averaging 10.6 points per game on 72.5% shooting. When a guy is making three out of four shots from anywhere you know there is something good going on.
Unfortunately even that cannot prevent the Bulldogs from dropping a game or two. They have a few tests on their schedule that will cause them some difficulty. The BYU Cougars may present somewhat of a challenge, but the team that will take down Mark Few is the St. Mary’s Gaels. The Gales have faced and beaten prime competition this year. When Gonzaga has to travel to St. Mary’s on February 11th, it will be too much for Gonzaga.
St. Mary’s is led by Australian Center Jock Landale with an outstanding 18.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds. To this point he is one of the most productive players in the country, not to mention the WCC. Another Aussie player that has high production on the team is Emmett Naar. Naar is a threat in several facets with 10.3 points, 5.7 assists and 2.9 rebounds. He is one of the main reasons that the ball moves so swiftly about the Gaels offense.
What the team truly brings as a strength is its defensive prowess. They are currently third in the country only allowing an astounding 58.1 points per game. They have allowed 61 points or under in 9 of their wins this year. The one game that they lost to UT-Arlington they only allowed 65 points. Gonzaga is a deep team, but they will not be able to fend off the aggressive defense of St. Mary’s.
Few coaches have been as dominant in their conference as Mark Few. Few entered the year with the highest winning percentage among active coaches. With Gonzaga at 10-0, Few has done nothing to hurt that. Currently at 475 career wins, sometime at the end of this season or the beginning of next he will reach 500. There has only been one season in Few’s tenure that the Bulldogs did not win the West Coast Conference regular season or tournament title. Additionally, he will reach 18 consecutive tournament appearances barring a titanic implosion.
Those are all great stats, but there is one glaring accomplishment missing: A Final Four Appearance. Under Few the West Coast juggernaut has been to six Sweet Sixteens, one of those turning into an Elite Eight appearance. Despite all of the tournament appearances and wins he has amassed, none have begotten a Final Four.
This year is a game changer for him. Better yet, a tournament changer. His team has the ability to go deep into the tournament. A strong combination of new faces and returnees has made this team as balanced as ever.
Przemek Karnowski is more than a big body, he also has grace for the Bulldogs. (Photo courtesy of bustingbrackets.com)
Przemek Karnowski’s return to the floor is the biggest impact for the team thus far. The stand out center played 5 games in 2015-16 before being sidelined with a back issue. Listed at 7-1 and 288 pounds, he is definitely a big body but there is more to him. He is one of the most graceful passers in the WCC.
This year has been no exception as he has done much more than be the team’s second leading scorer at 12.4 points per game. He has added on 6.2 rebounds per contest as well as 2.0 assists thus far. Not to mention he has accomplished everything with a highly efficient 27.7 PER. The numbers, however, do not reflect the precision with which he finds the open man cross court from the low post. Karnowski sends defenses into a tizzy by beginning his approach to the basket then flipping the ball with ease 15 feet away to a teammate.
Other significant returning players include Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. Perkins averaged double figures for the Bulldogs in 2015-16. With the departures of Domantas Sabonas, Kyle Wiltjer and Eric McClellan he became the team’s leading returning scorer. So far he has 11.7 points per game, but shows versatility by adding in 2.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals per contest. Perkins very much buys into Few’s offense that moves the ball frequently, but he has the ability to hit the shot that the team needs when necessary. Perkins currently sits at a 53.7% mark from three point land. Silas Melson, on the other hand, averages 7.9 points per game, 2.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists. He is doing this as the Bulldogs seventh leading scorer. The team legitimately plays eight players. Their depth and balance is one of their main strengths.
Gonzaga would be in a different place without Nigel Williams-Goss (Photo courtesy of emeraldcityswagger.com)
Much of that depth comes from the plethora of transfers that Mark Few has coaxed over to his Spokane. Starting from the top, there is leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss. Williams-Goss had a productive year for the Washington Huskies but decided to bolt for greener tournament pastures. The guard has put up numbers across the board with 13.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Williams-Goss’ defensive numbers have improved as well, allowing 88.8 points per 100 possessions dropping from 104.8 with Washington.
Jonathan Williams and Jordan Matthews are two additional transfers that have had an impact thus far. Matthews came over from California while Williams came from Missouri. Both players have seen a dip in their production from their previous locations. This does not mean that they are any less important. Each have had their respective impacts. Matthews has reached double figures in five games. This included a season high 17 points and three of five from deep in a trouncing of the Washington Huskies. For Williams it was a 16 point showing against Florida in which he made his mark. He has had a few other gems this year including 20 points against Bryant.
The balance of Few’s team reaches new heights when two freshman enter the discussion. Zach Collins is only playing 16.7 minutes per game, but is still the team’s fourth leading scorer at 10.0 points. Collins is currently shooting 69.4% from the field and has a PER of 30.5. That is a dangerous weapon for Few to have off his bench. Killian Tillie provided more at the beginning of the year, but he currently is playing 14.7 minutes per game. In his short stints he has provided 4.7 points and 3.9 rebounds. The scary figure is the six foot ten forward’s three point percentage: 46.7%. Few can insert him at any point in the game and spread the floor. Bigger players will be made uncomfortable playing outside the paint.
Their major strength is their ability to move the ball with extreme accuracy. The Bulldogs love to get out in transition and score quickly. They also possess the ability to slow the game down offensively and create in the half court. The West Coast team also has been efficient on defense, allowing 63.1 points per game to their opponents.
Gonzaga’s diversity and versatility under Mark Few has led to several key wins already. Early in the season they have already beaten the likes of Florida, San Diego State, Arizona and Iowa State. This has led the Bulldogs to a top ten ranking by the Associated Press. This is one of the teams in the country most worth tuning in to see and come April they will be in the mix with the giant programs.