In the cases of North Carolina and Gonzaga, bigger means better.
The NCAA championship game on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium pits teams that appear evenly matched. That’s not often the case when the Tar Heels and Bulldogs play because their frontcourts stand superior to their opponents.
But North Carolina, with 6-10, 260-pound Kennedy Meeks and 6-9 Isaiah Hicks, lead the national in rebounding margin at an eye-popping 12.7 boards per game.
And Gonzaga, with a mountain of a man in 7-foot Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III in the starting lineup and talented 7-foot freshman Zach Collins coming off the bench, offer one of the game’s most formidable front lines.
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“I think both of these teams are probably facing for the first time depth that mirrors each other inside,” Zags coach Mark Few said.
The play of the bigs was major factor in Saturday’s semifinal results.
The Tar Heels held off Oregon 77-76 when they corralled two offensive rebounds off free throws in the final 6 seconds, preventing the Ducks from a final possession opportunity for victory.
North Carolina came up with 17 offensive rebounds against Oregon. Of Meeks’ 14 total rebounds, eight were offensive boards, to go along with 25 points. This after a 17-rebound performance against Kentucky in the South Region final.
“He put up crazy numbers,” Collins said. “This is probably the biggest team we’ve played all year.”
North Carolina has faced teams with great length, like Florida State and Louisville, but Gonzaga is different.
“Those teams are big and long and maybe not with the size of Gonzaga,” said North Carolina guard Justin Jackson.
Indeed, the left-handed Karnowski checks in a few biscuits over 300 pounds. Williams said when he tries to go through Karnowski in practice, he usually winds up on the floor, “and he’s just standing there,” Williams said. “It’s a bad idea.”
The difference-maker in Gonzaga’s 77-73 victory over South Carolina, however, was Collins.
In 23 minutes, Collins scored 14 points, including a three-pointer that put the Zags ahead for good with 6:45 remaining. Collins’ only three-point attempt of the game ended a South Carolina 16-0 run.
Collins also grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked six shots.
Karnowski and Collins both finished the game with four fouls, and keeping them on the floor will be vital to Gonzaga’s chances.
“Foul trouble is my biggest concern,” Few said.
For North Carolina, it’s getting Hicks going. He missed 11 of 12 shots and chipped in a mere three rebounds. Tony Bradley, a 6-11 freshman, filled in some of the gap with six boards.
“Mentally, it’s just ‘next play,’ ” Hicks said. “I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated or anything because I feel like I’m out there trying. When it doesn’t go well you just keep trying.”
North Carolina and Gonzaga have plenty of firepower elsewhere. Jackson, the ACC player of the year, can change a game with his three-point shooting. Nigel Williams-Goss led the Zags with 23 points against South Carolina and runs the show from the point.
But all eyes Monday will be on the bigs.
“It’s going to be a lot of big bodies hitting around,” Karnowski said.