Hoop Thoughts: My pick for the national title game
HOUSTON — Let's hope that Monday night's national championship game closes the season in style. It could hardly be worse than the two games we were "treated" to on Saturday night.
Was Villanova that good, or was Oklahoma that bad? The answer is both. It takes two to make a thing go wrong.
Is North Carolina really that dominant? Or was Syracuse simply an overachieving team that met its match? The answer is both. The Orange had already lost twice to the Tar Heels during the season, so they would have needed some help to produce a different result. North Carolina, it turns out, was not in a very helpful mood.
Do we really have the best two teams in the country squaring off for the title? Or are they just the teams playing best at the moment? The answer is both. The NCAA tournament doesn't settle anything, but it does decide something very important. Whichever team hoists the big trophy at NRG Stadium on Monday night will have earned that privilege the hard way—by vanquishing a very good team playing its very best at the very best time.
Who will win? In case you haven't guessed by now, I'm guessing—just like you. Hey, I still think Michigan State has a chance to win this thing. That aside, I could make a case for either team. So I will. Here are my pair of three-pointers:
The Case For Villanova
1. The Wildcats are the tougher team
Just ask the Oklahoma Sooners, an offensive juggernaut that was last seen running for cover for the better part of the second half of their semifinal. There is no logic for Villanova to be the sixth-best defensive team in the country, according to kenpom.com, nor is there much explanation for how they could force Oklahoma, a team that averaged 13 turnovers per game, into committing 17 on Saturday night. Perhaps the most amazing stat of all is this: Villanova shot 71.4% from the field on Saturday and the Wildcats still pulled down seven offensive rebounds. That's toughness. Yes, Oklahoma missed a lot of open looks (Buddy Hield was 1-for-8 from three-point range). You might also recall that Kansas's Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis had their worst games of the season against Villanova in the South Regional Final. Isn't it a remarkable coincidence that teams seem to have poor shooting nights when they go up against these Wildcats? That's because they are bringing their Philly-style toughness, fighting for every loose ball, crashing the boards, sealing off driving lanes and punishing opponents in transition.
2. Ride the hot hand
For much of the season, the narrative surrounding Villanova was that it took too many threes and didn't make enough. Villanova attempted 43.0% of its shots from three-point range this season, a rate which ranked 29th in the country, yet its 35.9% shooting was 117th. During its five NCAA tournament games, Villanova is shooting a ridiculous 59.3% from behind the arc. Yet, it is only taking 30.7% of its field goal attempts from three. So they're taking smarter shots, more judiciously, and making them at a much higher clip. Does that sound like a team you want to pick against in the biggest game of the year?
3. Their defense gets an A
This ties in somewhat to the first point, but there is more to playing good defense than just being tough. Sometimes, teams that think they are tough become overly aggressive on D, which leads to foul trouble and easy opportunities on backdoors and overplays. Villanova's defense has been sublime during the tournament because the Wildcats are disciplined, mature, poised, efficient, and they are excellent at communicating with each other. Jay Wright likes to mix in different zone looks, but his team's man-to-man is what is really putting opponents on lockdown. Given the Tar Heels' deficiencies at times in the backcourt, that will be a big-time challenge for them to overcome on Monday.
The Case For North Carolina
1. Bigger is better
It has been a long time since we've seen a frontcourt that was this good and this deep. We all know that senior forward Brice Johnson is a special talent, yet the Tar Heels have made game-breaking second-half runs in their last two contests with Johnson on the bench. This team comes at opponents in waves, and its ability to dominate the offensive glass leads to lots of extra possessions. The Tar Heels rebounded 40.6% of their misses this season, the third-best rate in the country. During the NCAA tournament, they are rebounding 50.0% of their misses. This should be an especially effective weapon against a Villanova team that does a great job gang rebounding but counters with just one true center in senior Daniel Ochefu. If nothing else, Villanova has just five fouls to give at that position while North Carolina has 20. You might say that's a big difference.
2. Twos are worth more than threes
The math doesn't work here on a single attempt, but during the course of a game, two-point shooting is far more important than three-point shooting. This is especially true with this North Carolina team because its 31.9% clip from behind the arc is on pace to be the worst in the history of the program. The Heels are capable of making three-pointers, but they don't need to, which means they are operating on a bigger margin for error than Villanova. That's why they led Syracuse by 11 points at halftime on Saturday night despite going 0-for-10 from three-point range. Meanwhile, North Carolina shot 31-for-48 from two-point range on Saturday night. The Heels have made 58.0% from two during the NCAA tournament. That's even higher than their 54.4% rate during the season, which ranks 16th in the country. So if North Carolina comes out on Monday night and drops in more threes than usual, this team becomes nearly impossible to beat.
3. They can play some D too
North Carolina doesn't have the defensive prowess on the perimeter that Villanova does, but a team with this much size, length, depth and athleticism should excel at closing off driving lanes, protecting the rim and dominating the defensive glass. The only question is whether it has the mindset. Roy Williams's up-tempo system is so effective that his teams have a tendency to prefer to outscore opponents instead of shutting them down. That changed for North Carolina when it lost at home to Duke on Feb. 17 for no other reason than the Blue Devils were mentally tougher that night. Since then, the Tar Heels have locked in defensively, and as a result they have re-wired their own DNA. For evidence, look no further than the fact that they still have one more game to play. A team cannot make the NCAA championship game unless it is a great defensive team.
Like I said, I'm guessing, but I have a pretty good feeling that North Carolina will prevail. The areas in which the Tar Heels excel (size, depth, offensive rebounding) provide them a bigger edge than the ones where Villanova excels (overall toughness, perimeter D). North Carolina can match Villanova's maturity and efficiency, but in the end I don't believe the Wildcats can match that otherworldly frontcourt.
Final score: North Carolina 72, Villanova 66
I rest my case.