Get all of David Gardner’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
This NCAA tournament has been the opposite of an M. Night Shyamalan for two reasons: The twist came at the beginning, with a historic number of upsets in the first weekend followed mostly by chalk. And it has the chance to be entertaining from start to finish. Despite a couple of surprisingly noncompetitive games in the national semifinals, the national championship game on Monday has a chance to be one of the strongest matchups of the past few years.
On one side of the court will be North Carolina, the preseason No. 1 team, which has trailed for 50 seconds total in the second halves of its five NCAA tournament games. On the other side will be Villanova, which spent most of February as the No. 1 team in the land and which has knocked off college basketball’s best regular season team (Kansas) and its best player (Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield) in consecutive games. How will the Tar Heels and the Wildcats match up Monday? Here are three things to watch for in the game:
1. Inside Out
North Carolina hasn’t just survived this postseason, it has thrived, in large part thanks to its frontcourt. The Tar Heels’ are 16th in the nation in two-point field-goal percentage (54.4), 24th in two-point defense and ninth in block rate. Led by 6’10” senior forward Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels boast a bevy of big men, with juniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and sophomore Justin Jackson all taller than 6’8” and with offensive ratings north of 114.5. Thanks to his remarkable postseason run, Johnson has risen to No. 1 on kenpom.com’s player of the year power rankings. With Buddy Hield out of the NCAA tournament, there is a good argument to be made that Johnson is the best player left standing in college basketball.
North Carolina’s length—it is 59th in average height—will be an advantage over the much smaller (95th) Wildcats. Villanova only has two players who are 6’8” or taller, junior forward Darryl Reynolds and senior center Daniel Ochefu. And Ochefu appeared the re-aggravate a lingering ankle injury in the Wildcats’ win over Oklahoma on Saturday. He has told reporters here that he plans to play on Monday, but Villanova will need him at full strength if it hopes to stand tall against the Tar Heels.
2. A whole lotta Hart
It’s hard to stand out as an individual when your team plays nearly perfectly as a unit. But that’s what junior guard Josh Hart did on Saturday against Oklahoma. Villanova as a team handed Oklahoma the worst beatdown in Final Four history and executed offensively better than any team since the 1985 Wildcats in their historic upset over Georgetown. And in the midst of all that, was Hart, who played 30 minutes, went 10-for-12 from the floor and finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
It’s unusual to call a leading scorer an X-Factor, but that’s precisely what Hard is for the Wildcats. He is a power forward in a guard’s frame. He is Villanova’s second-leading rebounder despite standing 6’5”, and he’s the team’s fifth-best three-point shooter. Although North Carolina has the more talented roster of the two teams, it doesn’t have an ideal matchup for Hart. If he can approach the level of game he played against Oklahoma, Villanova will have a chance to win its second national championship.
Dozens of questions were directed at players this week about the NRG effect, a correlation between playing NCAA tournament games in the cavernous arena and poor shooting performances. After Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield made a three-pointer on the first semifinal’s first possession, many in the media quickly became dismissive of the effect. By the time Villanova wrapped up its 71.4% shooting night from the field, the NRG effect had been relegated to myth. But if you remove Villanova from the equation, Oklahoma, Syracuse and North Carolina combined to shoot 42.4% from the floor and 26.1% from three.
North Carolina is one of the least three-point reliant teams in the country (338th according to kenpom.com), and dispatched Syracuse despite missing all 10 of its first-half threes and shooting 23.5% on the game. Villanova, on the other hand, is 29th in three-pointers as a percentage of field-goal attempts. The Wildcats don’t need to mirror their Saturday performance to win, but they will need to outshoot the Heels from outside the arc to compensate for being outgunned in the post. If the Wildcats shoot well, this should be an even and exciting matchup. We’ll all forgive the Lady in the Water and The Happening double-feature we had to endure on Saturday night in exchange for a Monday night thriller.