Zags Fall Short as Heels Capture Elusive 6th (Roy’s 3rd)
April 05, 2017
In Monday night’s #1-seed showdown in Glendale, AZ, the University of North Carolina (33-7) defeated Gonzaga (37-2), in regulation time, by a final score of 71-65.
If last year’s ‘Nova v. UNC final represents the pinnacle of what basketball purists want to see (in any game, let alone a championship), this year’s final represents the very opposite.
This title match “may be remembered less for what was seen than what was heard: the steady thunks as balls struck mic’d-up rims and the frequent piercing of the referees’ whistles once again halting play” ( Greene). One of my favorite tweeters, local sportswriter and radio personality John Graham, got it all within 140 characters:
So, let’s go ahead and get to the whining. There are many who complained about the officiating of the final, and there are very likely some who might argue that Gonzaga was cheated out of history; and while such an argument is ridiculous , the officiating did affect the game, so some attention should be paid to this concern. Further, there are arguments that foul calls are “on track for 35 year high.”
Gonzaga’s head coach Mark Few refused to question the officiating, but factually, Sporting News contributor Alec Brzezinski has pointed out that “There were a whopping 44 fouls called in Monday night’s championship game — 27 in the second half alone.” If anything, being whistle-happy, placed the teams in a compromised defensive position, as “[q]uick whistles after halftime put both teams in the bonus with 14 minutes left in the second half. … The Tar Heels dealt with foul trouble as well — Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks each finished the game with four fouls” (Patterson).
Other than officiating–whose intervention may be of greater or lesser significance depending on your bent–the game was just an exhibition of basketball, played poorly. Easily one of Carolina’s ugliest championship games, but a championship offers a crown, for better or worse. And, as they say: ‘D’ is for Diploma.
While it’s fair to point out that the officiating did contribute to the choppiness of the game-flow–pausing the game every one to three trips up and down the court–it’s also fair to point out that the stats measuring in-game success show depressed offensive numbers despite the calls on the floor.
Both teams had pretty rough outings, save for UNC’s impressive defensive effort (which they were going to have to have), and as FiveThirtyEight contributer Neil Paine pointed out, “UNC and Gonzaga combined for a putrid 34.8 percent field goal percentage, 20 missed free throws and 44 total fouls …,” all within 73 possessions.
By the numbers, Carolina played awfully down the stretch. Not just poorly, but historically so:
Against Oregon, UNC shot 36.8 percent from the field – its worst shooting performance in an NCAA tournament victory since shooting 35.9 percent against Princeton in 1967. Until Monday, that is, when UNC shot 35.6 percent against Gonzaga. That was UNC’s worst in an NCAA tournament victory since it shot 31.8 percent against Michigan State in the 1957 national semifinal.
After the April 1 Oregon game, you’d have had to go back 50 years to find another NCAA tournament game that UNC won while shooting so poorly. Then, after the April 3 game against Gonzaga, you’d have had to go back 60 years. (Carter)
If those numbers aren’t sad enough, Justin Jackson, UNC star-Forward and ACC Player of the Year, went 0-9 from the arc, and “were an egregious 4-of-27 (14.8 percent)” from the arc as a team (Kirshner). Jackson finished the game with 16 pts, which was one point more than Gonzaga’s best scorer, Nigel Williams-Goss. UNC Point Guard Joel Berry II finished the game with 22 pts, the highest scorer of either team, and he was awarded the MVP award (Bleacher Report). Basic stat-lines for each squad (from Bleacher Report) can be seen below:
The most positive aspects of the match came from each team’s defensive efforts. As mentioned, UNC played the game they needed to play on that end of the court, but Gonzaga shouldn’t be dismissed. Indeed, Sporting News writer Sam Vecenie argued the Zags ripped through the tournament “on back of the most versatile frontcourt in America.” And this is what those who would argue the officials determined too much of the game, they’re likely meaning (and accurately so for some part of it) that too many whistles added avoidable pressure on that very frontcourt as they started to run close to fouling out with as many as fifteen minutes to play.
Still, that didn’t really hinder Gonzaga’s ability to strong-arm UNC in the paint. According to SB Nation, “The Heels had the best offensive rebounding rate in the country this year, getting back 41.3 of the rebound-able shots they missed. They had 15 such boards against Gonzaga, which sounds fine, but their overall O-boards rate was 28.9 percent” (Kirshner). This was a game of athleticism, and while the Zags had a slight size advantage inside, that ultimately didn’t matter (as predicted by your correspondent’s prediction, and by FiveThirtyEight’s Chadwick Matlin). It would have been nice to see both squads play well on both ends, but that’s basketball and the sort of fortune and variables that come with competitive performance. Here are a few other statistics for some context related to this final, its result, and the surrounding atmosphere.
It was a jerky game that stands out, in this correspondent’s memory, as one best characterized by missed baskets, blown chances, and too much referee involvement. Simply put: no one who truly respects the game should find comfort in any description of UNC v. Gonzaga better than “ugly, amateur basketball.” That it resulted in one team’s receiving the status of National Champion is redeeming, but it feels undeserved.
 And not because your correspondent is a homer for the Heels. In fact, often, their homers make it difficult to comfortably and happily pull for the players clad in baby blue. I’m still willing to pull for Carolina when circumstance warrant, but I have nothing against Gonzaga–really, I’d have enjoyed seeing them win. And if I’m a homer for anyone, it’s for NC State.