GLENDALE, Ariz. – Josh Perkins dreamed of wearing a North Carolina uniform as a kid. Mark Few admits he installed Tar Heels coach Roy Williams’ fast-break scheme for his first seven seasons at Gonzaga.
“I just copied it, boom,” Few said.
The Zags are well aware North Carolina is college basketball royalty. They understand the Tar Heels have been to 20 Final Fours – matching the number of GU tournament appearances – and they’re eying a sixth national championship.
History isn’t necessarily on Gonzaga’s side in Monday’s national championship showdown at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Zags (37-1) are 0-7 against No. 1 seeds, losing by an average margin of 14.4 points.
A West Coast team hasn’t won an NCAA title since Arizona in 1997. The last 26 national champs have been members of the ACC, American, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC.
And the last program to win it all in its first title-game appearance? UConn in 1999.
The Zags tip their hat to tradition, but they’ve been about making history of their own this season, checking off the program’s best start, the longest winning streak, the last Division I unbeaten and their first Final Four.
One goal – the national championship – and one obstacle – ultratalented North Carolina – remain.
“I just know there’s a lot of guys in the locker room that weren’t recruited by these schools and thought they should have been,” Perkins said. “That’s the message, that we’re coming to work and to prove a point. We don’t care what name is across your chest.
“I can’t say enough about North Carolina. As a kid that’s what I dreamed of. I’m just glad we get the opportunity to play against them in the championship game.”
On paper and on the court, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in these teams. Both rely on deep, talented and versatile frontcourts. Both have a playmaking point guard (GU’s Nigel Williams-Goss and UNC’s Joel Berry).
Both are among the nation’s top offenses and thrive in the open court. Gonzaga is No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s analytics rankings, North Carolina No. 3.
“That may be the way it’s perceived, David and Goliath,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said, “but when you start watching them, it’s not that much difference.”
The Zags’ to-do list starts with transition defense. Berry and company are fast and they’re finishers. There’s a reason programs copy Williams’ secondary break.
Next up: Clean the glass. That has been a sore spot for the Zags on occasion this season. North Carolina’s best play at times is a missed shot. The Tar Heels retrieve more offensive rebounds (15.8) than anyone in the country.
They collected 17 in Saturday’s win over Oregon – eight by center Kennedy Meeks.
“We’re going to try to get one of their bigs in foul trouble and take it from there,” Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams said. “We have to box them out every single time.”
The Tar Heels (32-7) don’t run a ton of set plays, but they’re adept at creating their own shot and they share the ball (18.1 assists per game).
“Not complicated from a strategic standpoint, but complicated from an execution standpoint,” Zags assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “They just play, but a lot of it is read-based stuff that flows easily. There’s a plan to what they’re doing.”
UNC’s Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-8 wing, was the ACC player of the year and he’s been named to several All-American teams. Williams is a defensive option, but the Zags’ three-guard alignment would have to deal with at least two of UNC’s other starters that stand 6-6, 6-9 and 6-10.
Of course, North Carolina has matchup issues of its own.
“We don’t pretend to think we’re anywhere near the level of tradition with Carolina or Duke or Kentucky,” Few said. “But we do feel we’ve been a national entity for some time. The product, the brand, the players, the team we’re putting out there can compete with anybody.”
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