National Championship Preview: Can Gonzaga Come Away Victorious?

North Carolina and Gonzaga are not used to facing a team that's similar to them. How will they handle it?

The final game of the college basketball season has arrived. Thankfully for us, there aren’t many better matchups we could’ve asked for than this.

After a near historic run through the regular season, the Gonzaga Bulldogs enter their first-ever national championship game with a 37-1 record and a winning attitude that allows them to play in any kind of game.

Meanwhile, this is familiar territory for the North Carolina Tar Heels -- they’re back in the title game for the second consecutive year, hoping to avenge last season‘s agonizing defeat at the hands of the Villanova Wildcats. Roy Williams’ squad is also on a historic run, becoming just the eighth team to make it all the way back to the championship after losing it the year before.

Of the previous seven, only three have gone on to win the following year, but one of them was the 1982 UNC squad that boasted names like Jordan, Worthy, and Perkins.

Can’t Deny the Similarities

The main thing that jumps out when looking at these teams is just how similar they are from a roster composition standpoint.

Both use height to their advantage with multiple players 6’9” or taller, and they both are efficient on offense, ranking in the top 10 in offensive rating despite not shooting a ton of three-pointers (North Carolina ranks 306th in three-point attempt rate and Gonzaga ranks 256th).

They also rank in the top 15 in total rebounding percentage, with North Carolina leading the nation.

Also Can’t Deny the Differences

The biggest difference between these two squads is pretty clear, though -- one of them is North Carolina and the other is Gonzaga.

The Tar Heels got here by battling through the rigors of an ACC conference schedule and still didn’t shy away from big-time opponents during the non-conference portion. They’ve played 11 games against Kenpom top-25 teams this season, winning 7 of them. While they do not have the NBA-caliber players you would expect from a blue blood school, the names of Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II, and Isaiah Hicks are recognizable to even the casual college basketball fan and have the experience necessary to succeed in a game like this.

On the other hand, Gonzaga enters with a mostly unknown squad. And between the late start times and their affiliation with the West Coast Conference, many probably haven’t seen much of the Zags before the tournament began. Their undefeated run and time spent as the nation’s top-ranked team could’ve been viewed as somewhat fraudulent because they didn’t have the strength of schedule (ranked 78th) to back up how impressive their dominance was throughout the regular season.

With all that being said, this Gonzaga team is for real -- they’re the only team in the country that ranks in the top six in offensive and defensive rating, leading the nation in the latter. Even when adjusting for their schedule, Gonzaga ranks in the top 12 in both categories, according to Kenpom (still leading the country in defense). They have a dynamic guard in Nigel Williams-Goss, who leads them in points, assists, and is tied for second in rebounds. He also has the height to clog up the middle and score effectively behind Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins.

The Bulldogs are also a much better shooting team -- they’re connecting on 57 percent of two-pointers (UNC is at 51 percent) and also have an edge beyond the arc by nearly two whole percentage points. On defense, they’ve defended two-pointers (rankings first) and three-pointers (ranking second) better than the Tar Heels, ranking

Gonzaga’s Most Important Key to Victory

The Zags must focus on keeping North Carolina off the offensive glass.

The Tar Heels were not able to win the rebounding battle with the Oregon Ducks the other day, even with a solid height advantage. If Gonzaga can be diligent in the rebounding department and limit North Carolina’s second chances, they should be able to control the game and naturally outscore the Tar Heels.

North Carolina’s Most Important Key to Victory

The big question for North Carolina will be the health of point guard Joel Berry II, who injured his ankle in the Elite Eight game against Kentucky.

Berry played 35 minutes on Saturday, but only shot 2-for-14 from the floor, including 2-for-8 from three. His contributions to this game will be huge as he and Justin Jackson need to connect from downtown to keep Gonzaga’s defense honest. If Berry looks the way he did Saturday, he can become a liability, especially on defense, and it will be tough to keep him on the floor.

As it stands right now, our algorithms currently favor the Zags, giving them a 53% chance of cutting down the nets.