North Carolina vs. Villanova: A National Championship Game in the Truest Sense
March lived up to its reputation and gave us plenty of Madness. But with almost all said and done and the calendar now flipped to April, the bracket we've been staring at endlessly for the last three weeks has produced a championship matchup between number one and number two.
Those, of course, are the seeds that North Carolina and Villanova carry into the National Championship Game after their convincing Final Four wins on Saturday. But our power rankings -- and we're not alone -- would suggest that the play of these teams has made them the two best in the country this year, setting up a Monday night title fight that should be truly special.
Our nERD-based ratings give Villanova the highest power ranking in the country (includes games played in the tournament), with North Carolina second. Ken Pomeroy's College Basketball Ratings agree. Jeff Sagarin and TeamRankings each have Villanova ranked first and UNC third. None of the ratings systems put much space at all between these two heavyweights, and our projection for the game is virtually too close to call (but more on that later).
As North Carolina and Villanova get ready to collide on college basketball's biggest stage, here's a snapshot of each team as they look to achieve history in Houston on Monday night.
North Carolina's Path to the Title
North Carolina has enviable talent all over the floor, but it all starts in the interior for the Tar Heels, and they showed that in a big way on Saturday against Syracuse.
We discussed last week that UNC did not need, and likely would not even try, to make a lot of threes over the top of Syracuse's zone in order to take down the Orange in the Final Four. UNC, true to form, scored only 12 of their 83 points from beyond the arc, while notching 50 points inside the paint and shooting nearly 65 percent on two-pointers. ESPN notes that North Carolina has scored 30 or more points in the paint in all five of its tournament wins, and is 32-1 on the season when doing so.
The Tar Heels' frontline of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Isaiah Hicks are all 6'8" or 6'9", and have created their fair share of matchup troubles for teams of all shapes and sizes this season. Villanova will counter with a unit that, while not as big on paper, has largely held its own on the interior. Daniel Ochefu is the 6'11" rim protector and anchor of Villanova's defense, but Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges, and Josh Hart all play bigger on the boards and on the blocks than their measurables might suggest, and 6'8" Daryl Reynolds has improved throughout the season to give the Wildcats some depth.
Still, UNC's modus operandi in this game will be to pound the Wildcats inside, testing Villanova's ability to both defend and stay out of foul trouble in the paint. UNC's biggest advantage on paper comes on the offensive boards. The Tar Heels have the third-best Offensive Rebounding Rate in the country, according to KenPom, and Oklahoma was able to grab their fair share of second-chance opportunities against Villanova (albeit, without much success to show for their efforts).
The play, and particularly ball control, of Carolina point guard Joel Berry II has also been a critical success factor to the Tar Heels' march through the bracket. UNC is one of the best ball control teams in the country, and that's thanks in large part to the strides made this season by the Tar Heels' sophomore. In the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four, Berry has dished out 23 assists while committing only two turnovers. Backcourt mate Marcus Paige has also stepped up in the tournament, overcoming season-long shooting woes to score in double figures in all five of the Tar Heels' tournament games. If the UNC backcourt duo can keep doing what they've been doing this tournament, they will help split Villanova's attention defensively, and could limit how much the Wildcats' perimeter defenders can help down low on the Carolina big men.
North Carolina has won their tournament games by an average of 16 points a game by playing -- and staying -- big, as they have all season. If UNC does not feel compelled to "go small" at any point during this game, that's likely a good sign that UNC is executing within their preferred game plan and tempo. UNC will look to speed up Villanova, as KenPom ranks North Carolina's offensive possessions as the 19th-quickest in the nation (while Villanova ranks 283rd).
Villanova's Path to the Title
The list of noteworthy Villanova achievements in their semifinal win over Oklahoma is lengthy, and still pretty incredible two days later. Villanova shot over 71 percent from the field against the Sooners, the best shooting performance at the Final Four since the 1985 Villanova championship team. The 2016 edition's Effective Field Goal percentage actually tops their title-winning ancestors, thanks to 11 three-point makes and 61 percent shooting from deep. Villanova's 44-point win over the Sooners was the largest in the history of the Final Four, and the largest margin of victory by any team in the 2016 tournament.
So, what does Villanova do for an encore? It's likely that Jay Wright and the Wildcats will make a quick transition from their high-flying, 95-point performance on Saturday to much more of the "grind it out" mentality they adopted in their Elite Eight win over Kansas. Villanova has won in the tournament with eye-popping, record-breaking offensive performances, yet still controlled the game against Kansas while shooting just over 40 percent. The Wildcats will likely have their hands full with the Tar Heels inside, and may have a hard time generating turnovers at the same clip as they did against Oklahoma (17 in Saturday's win).
Villanova will, however, look to attack the Carolina defense inside and on the perimeter. While much has already been made about the tough time 'Nova could have defending Brice Johnson and company down low, UNC may not have a great answer for Kris Jenkins' inside-outside game and the slashing ability of Josh Hart. Villanova shoots two-pointers better than just about any team in the country (over 57 percent for the season).
Even so, they could experience some difficulty finishing over the tall and long Tar Heels' frontcourt. That's where the slash-and-kick ability of all the Wildcats' versatile perimeter players, and the ever-improving passing ability of big man Daniel Ochefu, could help the Wildcats punch holes in the North Carolina defense. Villanova proved on Saturday that it can shoot inside the cavernous dimensions at NRG Stadium. If the Wildcats hit a few from deep early, they could cause the Carolina defense to get out of sorts defensively. North Carolina is outside the top 200 nationally at defending the three and has allowed an average of 10 three-point makes to their last three opponents. UNC has improved of late defensively, but still ranks just 83rd in our Defensive Efficiency metrics, well behind Villanova's last two opponents, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Though the ball control ability of the Tar Heels was noted, the Wildcats will do their best to make life difficult for the UNC guards. Wright has done a masterful job coaching the team's defense throughout the NCAA Tournament, varying defensive looks and individual assignments to keep opposing offenses out of rhythm. Villanova has plenty of versatility defensively, and will look to be the aggressor once again, in spite of UNC's size. Against Kansas, the Wildcats held the Jayhawks' premier post scorer, Perry Ellis, to just five shot attempts, as Mikal Bridges (he of the 7-foot wingspan and five steals in the Elite Eight win) kept Kansas searching for answers on offense. Villanova may take that approach directly to UNC, with frontcourt standout Brice Johnson in the crosshairs.
Almost any way you look at it, these are the nation's two best college basketball best teams who happen to be meeting at a time when each is playing at their best with a National Title on the line. What else could we ask for in a championship game?
The numerFire Live projection gives the slightest of slight edges to North Carolina, with a 51 percent win probability for Monday night's national title showdown.