Well, it’s finally here, the National Championship Game. Both North Carolina and Villanova have impressed all season and all tournament long, and they’ll face off in the final game of the college basketball season in Houston at NRG Stadium. This will be the seventh time the Tarheels and the Wildcats will face off in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina has won the last four match ups, and lead the series in the tournament 5-1.
Both of these teams have broken through in March Madness, after multiple years of disappointment. UNC hadn’t made it past the Sweet Sixteen since 2012 and is looking for their first national championship since 2009.
Villanova is looking for their first championship since 1985, when they upset Georgetown. That team remains the lowest seed to win a national championship as an eight seed. This is Villanova’s first appearance past the Sweet Sixteen since 2009, when they made it all the way to the Final Four before losing to, you guessed it North Carolina.
North Carolina is widely regarded as one of the top dogs in the tournament, and were the only number one seed to make it to the Final Four. The Tarheels are a deep team with a lot of talent up front. They overcame the Syracuse zone, winning handily by 17, and have still yet to win a game by fewer than 14 points in this tournament.
The ACC Champions are led primarily by the dynamic senior duo of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.
Johnson has been a monster all season long, averaging a double-double in the regular season. In five NCAA Tournament games, Johnson is scoring 20 points per game and bringing in 9.6 rebounds a game. He’s the emotional leader on the team and has thrown a team with sky high expectations on his back and carried them all year.
After a breakout sophomore campaign two seasons ago, Paige has seemed to regress, but nonetheless, he’s a integral part of the offense for the Tarheels. The offense runs through him and when he’s not in the lineup, the Tarheels offense seems to sputter.
North Carolina is the hottest team in the nation, winning 10 in a row heading into tonight’s matchup. Their offense has looked even more dynamic in the tournament. The Tarheels are pouring in 88 points per game as a team, and have been strong on the boards, bringing in 39 rebounds per game.
Outside of Paige and Johnson, two players to watch for Roy Williams’ club could be Joel Berry and Justin Jackson. Both are secondary scorers on this team, but are asked to shoulder the load when Johnson and Paige are on the sidelines, and if they can say composed against a feisty Villanova defense, the Tarheels will have a lot of success in this game.
Villanova might be the most impressive team of the tournament. They weren’t expected by many people to be in the spot they are now. Nova recently drubbed favored Oklahoma by 44, a Final Four record margin. The Wildcats shot over 70% from the field and shut down Buddy Hield for just nine points in a dominating effort.
The Wildcats have been led all season long by Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart. Hart was the key factor in Nova’s victory over Oklahoma, scoring 23 on 10/12 shooting, eight rebounds and four assists. Jenkins has led the team in scoring in the NCAA tournament, scoring 15 points a game. The offense for the ‘Cats has been great, scoring 84 points a game on 58% shooting as a team, but the defense has been downright special for Nova.
The Big East regular champions held an explosive Oklahoma offense to just 55 points. In the tournament, Villanova is holding teams to just 60 points a game and forcing nine steals a game. Against Oklahoma, the stingy defense forced 17 turnovers. While there isn’t a lockdown defensive presence on this roster, the team works perfectly as a unit.
The aggressiveness on defense leads to easy buckets in transition and forces teams into bad shots. Nova can both play man-to-man and zone and often switch between the two, keeping offenses off balance.
A couple of names to watch for Villanova are freshmen Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson. Brunson is the starting point guard and while he hasn’t had a strong tournament, he’s a former five star recruit and is due to breakout against North Carolina. Bridges came up huge against Kansas, the only single-digit win by either of these teams, and he mainly provides an injection of energy off the bench for Villanova.
This game will be a battle of strengths. UNC loves to pound the ball down low and Nova likes to spread people out shoot a lot of jumpers. Daniel Ochefu will have his hands full with a trio of UNC big men in Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
These two rosters have been the most impressive teams in the tournament, and not just because they’re the only two remaining. Jay Wright and Roy Williams have both developed a knack for making coaching mistakes in big games, and I think it will come down to which teams will make the least amount of mental mistakes. I’ve been disrespecting Villanova all tournament, but I still think North Carolina’s depth and force on the inside will be too much for the Wildcats.
Cover Photo via Heavy.com