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6 Things You Should Know About Monday’s NCAA Championship Game

After a couple of nail-biters in Phoenix on Saturday, we’re down to one game remaining in the 2016-17 NCAA men’s basketball season. So trust your gut and be sure to box out under the basket — here’s your cheat sheet of what to watch for in Monday night’s championship game.

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 1 North Carolina

Where to watch: CBS, 9:20 PM EDT
Who’s favored: According to the FiveThirtyEight model, Gonzaga has a 62 percent probability of winning the national championship. If that surprises you, you’re not alone — in a break with the stats, Vegas has the Tar Heels favored by 2 points. (More on that later.)

Why Gonzaga can win:

  • Simply put, the Zags are the statistical darlings of this championship game. They rank ahead of UNC not only in the FiveThirtyEight statistical power ratings, but also in those of college-hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy, USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin, and plenty of other analysts. Going into the tournament, Gonzaga faced questions about whether its weak strength of schedule was properly accounted for in these systems’ various adjustments, but by now, even the most hardened Bulldogs skeptic has to admit that the Zags are for real. By the numbers, at least, Gonzaga deserves to have the edge.
  • Gonzaga’s defense is the best in the country according to Pomeroy’s ratings. It specializes in forcing teams into poor shots in the half court by using a good transition D that takes away quick buckets — the Zags are allowing the 14th-fewest transition chances per play of any team in the tourney — and an impenetrable interior defense of preposterous size. That formula might be custom-made to defeat a North Carolina squad that is efficient in transition but hasn’t been very effective in the half court during the tournament thus far. I’d thought the Heels’ recent poor shooting might reverse itself against Oregon, but instead UNC had one of its worst nights of the season from the field. (Using a twice-injured Joel Berry II didn’t help — he went 2-for-14 from the floor, while teammate Isaiah Hicks went 1-for-12.) With one game left, against a team whose defensive strengths match up particularly well against North Carolina’s offensive tendencies, the Tar Heels might not be able to avoid another disappointing shooting night.
  • Gonzaga’s coach is real good. So good that Mark Few deserves to be in the same conversation as great coaches such as, say, UNC’s Roy Williams. Few’s winning percentage speaks for itself; he also gets bonus points for showing a willingness to think outside the coaching box. At the end of the Zags’ win over South Carolina Saturday night, he elected to foul while up 3 — a logical risk that’s rarely taken in the ultra-conservative world of college coaching. Yes, the numbers are split on whether it’s always the right call in a generic sense, but by taking the chance at a game-tying shot away from SC’s best player and setting Gonzaga up to use its size advantage on the boards in the event of an intentionally missed free throw, Few eked out those last few points of win probability that the Bulldogs may have needed to advance.

VIDEO: Gonzaga has the numbers, but UNC has the pedigree


Why North Carolina can win:

  • Gonzaga has the nation’s eighth-tallest team this season, with its third-tallest frontcourt, thanks to the 7-footer pairing of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins. But the Bulldogs’ size might meet its match (or at least close to it) in the Tar Heels, who boast 6-foot-9 Isaiah Hicks and 6-foot-10 Kennedy Meeks down low, plus 6-foot-8 Justin Jackson on the wing and 6-foot-11 Tony Bradley coming off the bench. The Zags won’t easily be able to push around a UNC squad that leads the tournament in rebound margin (see the last 6 seconds of the Oregon game for more evidence there), nor will they likely be able to get the ball down low as frequently as they did against South Carolina, whom Gonzaga out-posted 20-8 in the national semifinals.
  • No matter what criteria you use, North Carolina is the best team Gonzaga has faced all season long. According to Pomeroy’s rankings, before Monday’s tip-off, you’d have to go all the way back to Nov. 25, a game against No. 5-ranked Florida, to find Gonzaga facing a similar class of opponent — North Carolina is ranked No. 3. The Bulldogs also barely beat the only top-10 team they had to face during the tournament (West Virginia). Making the national title game is never easy, but the Zags haven’t exactly navigated the toughest path. So although the uncertainty about Gonzaga’s true quality has been reduced significantly over the past three weeks, it’s easy to see how UNC’s talent edge could lead to a comfortable Tar Heel victory.
  • The stats say Gonzaga is the nation’s best team; the bookmakers disagree. As I mentioned above, Vegas quickly installed North Carolina as the favorites in the national title game, numbers be damned. Some of it might be due to residual skepticism over the Bulldogs’ rise. However, some of it might also be owed to North Carolina’s pedigree — the Tar Heels have the higher preseason ranking, the superior recruiting classes, the legendary coaching of Williams, and the benefit of experience as the team plays in its second straight title game and enjoys a huge lead in all-time Final Four appearances over Gonzaga. There’s evidence from other sports that factors like experience and pedigree matter in addition to a team’s statistical resume, so it may be that pure numbers are underestimating Carolina’s chances Monday night.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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