Not all title games are created equal. Monday night’s seems destined to be a cut above most others.
There is no major American sport more defined by its postseason than college basketball. In turn, the sport’s champion takes on a larger role than most when it comes to how a particular season winds up being remembered. That can be a bit of a problem with a postseason format that lends itself to the potential of a team that hasn’t been anywhere near one of the season’s best ultimately claiming the sport’s top prize.
Some years in college basketball, a team with no legitimate claim to being the sport’s “best team” winds up cutting down the nets. While everyone is in agreement that said team would not be in this spot if the tournament were to be played over from the beginning, we’re forced to shrug our shoulders, say “well that’s March Madness,” and turn our attention to next year. While the unpredictability of the tournament is a large part of its great allure, the years where it leaves us with an unpredictable champion always feel slightly less satisfying.
Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case in either of the last two years, and it won’t be the case on Monday night when Gonzaga and North Carolina meet in a national championship game unlike any other. If you aren’t already excited about the showdown, here are five reasons you should be.
1. These have been the two best teams in the tournament
While some will try when it comes to Gonzaga, you can’t say that either team hasn’t earned its spot in Monday night’s title game. Both teams have been pushed before the Final Four — Gonzaga by West Virginia and Northwestern, North Carolina by Arkansas and Kentucky — and then again in it. In each instance, the teams have answered the bell in the manner they needed to in order to advance.
This title game isn’t the product of a fluke run or two, or the bracket unfolding perfectly for one team to coast to five straight wins. This is the product of two No. 1 seeds that have been the best college basketball teams in the country over the course of the last month. Now they get the chance to prove who is the best of the best.
2. Gonzaga’s infinite storylines
The most obvious storyline of all heading into the title game is Gonzaga looking to take the final step in its transition from Cinderella story to established national powerhouse. It’s a saga far too extraordinary and dense to cover in a space like this, but thankfully Ricky O’Donnell did a masterful job doing just that on Sunday.
The crazy thing about Gonzaga being here is that while it’s defining storyline is well-known to everyone, its secondary storylines would also be enough to garner extreme attention from casual fans in any other year.
Here’s the rundown:
—The Zags are looking to become the first program located West of Kansas to win the national title since Arizona did it two decades ago.
—A win would make Gonzaga the first school without a football program to win the NCAA tournament since 1977.
—A win would make Gonzaga the first one-loss national champion since NC State in 1974.
—A win would make Gonzga the first low/mid-major conference team to win the NCAA tournament since 1990.
—And finally, Gonzaga beating North Carolina would make them the first national champion out of the West Coast Conference since Bill Russell led the Dons of San Francisco to the title in 1956.
So, yeah, there’s a lot going on here.
3. North Carolina’s shot at ultimate redemption and risk of ultimate heartbreak
While the Gonzaga angle is the headline-grabber for obvious reasons, North Carolina also brings a sexy backstory of its own into Monday night. Let us not forget that the Tar Heels were on the receiving end of arguably the greatest finish in NCAA tournament history just 364 days ago. A victory would restore order to the basketball universe in Chapel Hill, while a second straight championship game loss would be a gut-punch the likes of which few programs have ever endured.
4. The teams are evenly matched inside
North Carolina and Gonzaga both ran into hot teams with exceptional guards in the Final Four. The issue for the underdogs in both those games was that the Zags and Tar Heels had a huge advantage in size and athleticism in the paint. Those advantages should be negated on Monday night.
UNC is the best rebounding team in the country, coming down with a ridiculous 41.3 percent of its own missed shots. Oregon found out just how valuable a skill set that can be when the Heels, clinging to a one-point lead, came down with a pair of their own missed free throws in the final five seconds of Saturday night’s second semifinal.
Gonzaga controlled the paint in its game as well, outrebounding South Carolina by eight and getting 27 points from the 7-foot duo of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins. Collins, a freshman who could be a top-15 NBA draft pick if he chooses to come out, is coming off perhaps the best game of his college career to date. He dropped 14 points on the Gamecocks, snagged 13 rebounds, and blocked a tournament-high six shots.
Kennedy Meeks is playing the best basketball of his career at the perfect time, but he and the rest of Carolina’s vaunted frontcourt are going to be able to rely on pure bullying Monday night. From an objective viewer’s standpoint, that’s refreshing.
5. There are multiple players on both teams capable of becoming tournament legends
In spite of the David vs. Goliath framing that’s easy to do heading into this game, these are two powerhouse teams loaded with star power.
North Carolina has first-team All-American and ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson. Gonzaga counters with second-team All-American and West Coast Conference Player of the Year Nigel Williams-Goss. UNC has a freshman in Tony Bradley who is capable of giving the world an early look at his unlimited potential with a surprisingly heroic performance in the national title game. The Zags counter with a freshman of their own in Collins, who sort of did just that in the team’s win over Oregon two days ago.
Both teams are loaded with talent at every position, which means is the perfect recipe for the creation of both a legendary title game and a new March Madness immortal.