Goliath Verses Goliath

Posted: April 3, 2017 in AVC Men's Basketball, AVC Men's BB 2016-17, NCAA

A few years ago if Gonzaga would have been playing North Carolina in any game let alone the national NCAA championship, it would have been called David verses Goliath.  Tonight it is being called Goliath verses Goliath.  This is the year of the “Big Men.”  That said, I believe that the points guards will make the difference tonight and will win the game for one of the Goliath’s.

Here is a great article from the Wall Street Journal on how Gonzaga became a D-1 NCAA top dog playing for the national title. 

How Gonzaga Became a Top Dog

The Bulldogs are no longer a Cinderella team, but seek a fairy-tale ending in the national title game against North Carolina

Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski blocks a shot.

Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski blocks a shot. Photo: Ben Margot/Associated Press

By Jared Diamond. Jared Diamond, The Wall Street Journal

For most of college basketball history, a national championship game between North Carolina and Gonzaga seemed laughable, a ridiculous fantasy made possible only under the influence of Washington’s legalized marijuana.

Until recently, the Bulldogs were the epitome of Cinderella, a school with a funny name miraculously good enough to run with the big boys but not ready to topple them. The Tar Heels are arguably the bluest of all blue-bloods, the program with the Hall of Fame coach, an alumni roster of all-time NBA greats and five titles to its name. When the two teams met in the Sweet 16 in 2009, North Carolina won by 21 points, maintaining the world’s natural order.

But times have changed, roles have evolved and expectations have grown. As North Carolina and Gonzaga prepare for Monday night’s matchup here at University of Phoenix Stadium, it has become clear that this isn’t David vs. Goliath—it’s Goliath vs. Goliath.

“That may be the way it’s perceived, David and Goliath,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “But when you start watching them, it’s not that much difference.”

Gonzaga might still lack North Carolina’s brand recognition, facing weaker competition in a small conference, but a closer look at the roster reveals that the Bulldogs are a Power-Five team in disguise.

Three of their four-leading scorers are playing their first season with Gonzaga after transferring from larger schools: Nigel Williams-Goss from Washington, Jordan Mathews from California and Johnathan Williams from Missouri.

The Bulldogs also have Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman who perhaps encapsulates Gonzaga’s growth from precious darlings to undisputed powerhouse. Collins is currently projected as the No. 11 pick in this year’s NBA draft, according to nbadraft.net.

If he leaves, Collins would become Gonzaga’s first-ever one-and-done player—even though he doesn’t start and ranks only seventh on the team in minutes. Players like Collins don’t sit for true mid-majors.

“They were Cinderella and all that pretty stuff” many years ago, South Carolina coach Frank Martin said after the Bulldogs beat the Gamecocks in the Final Four on Saturday. Martin added that after 19 consecutive tournament appearances, “They’re as high major as high major can get.”

With the Tar Heels playing in its second consecutive title game—they lost at the buzzer to Villanova in Houston last April—nobody would question North Carolina’s bona fides. But UNC finds itself in a bit of an unusual position, needing to capitalize on this situation in light of an unclear future.

North Carolina’s top four scorers—Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks—are all upperclassmen, making up two-thirds of the team’s offensive output. That roster composition has worked for the Tar Heels, but it is less of an intentional strategy and more of an inevitability.

UNC remains mired in an academic scandal that could result in NCAA sanctions. That uncertain status has hurt the Tar Heels on the recruiting trail. From 2009 through 2014, North Carolina on average had the fourth-best recruiting class each year, according to ESPN. Since then, the Tar Heels have been No. 20.

“We recruited 26 McDonald’s All-Americans in the first 10 years,” said Williams, UNC’s coach since 2003. “In the last three, we’ve gotten one. I don’t think I got that dumb that quickly.”

Whatever happens moving forward, however, doesn’t change the fact that right now, North Carolina and Gonzaga are similarly matched. Tar Heels assistant Sean May described it as “a big heavyweight battle.”

Kennedy Meeks led North Carolina with 25 points and 14 rebounds against Oregon on Saturday.

Kennedy Meeks led North Carolina with 25 points and 14 rebounds against Oregon on Saturday. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

May meant that in a figurative sense, but he just as easily could have meant it literally. North Carolina and Gonzaga are Goliath vs. Goliath not just in the quality of their programs—but in their actual size as well.

In recent seasons, the NCAA tournament has been dominated by guards, giving rise to the theory that in college basketball, bigger isn’t better. The last three Most Outstanding Players—Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono, Duke’s Tyus Jones and Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier—have all stood 6-foot-3 or smaller. That makes Monday’s North Carolina-Gonzaga showdown something of a throwback, a game that will be won not at the 3-point arc, but under the basket.

“Both these teams are probably facing for the first time depth that mirrors each other inside,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

The Tar Heels are monsters on the board, leading the country in the regular season by grabbing 43.5 rebounds per game, including 15.8 on the offensive end. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have two giants underneath: Collins and Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1 senior from Poland with a massive beard and an even larger frame.

Few said that keeping his big men out of foul trouble and UNC off the offensive glass will likely prove the difference in the game. Williams said that the Bulldogs “have the most size of anybody we’ve played all year.” Both coaches called the low-post battle between Karnowski and the 6-foot-10 Meeks as key to the game.

Ultimately, this is exactly what Gonzaga has wanted for nearly two decades—people talking not about its unexpected accomplishments, but about its abilities on the basketball court. After all, the Bulldogs are 37-1 and have spent most of the season ranked No. 1 by the advanced analytics website KenPom.com.

They don’t need any more validation—but a national title would’t hurt.

“We don’t pretend or think we’re anywhere near the level with the tradition of Carolina or Duke or Kentucky,” Few said. “But we also think that this is the national brand and national entity and we’re not going anywhere.”

Write to Jared Diamond at jared.diamond@wsj.com

Appeared in the Apr. 03, 2017, print edition.

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