9:19 PM EST, TBS – Line: North Carolina -3, Over/Under: 151
After three weeks of madness, the 2015-2016 College Basketball Season comes to it’s conclusion tonight in Houston, Texas, as the Villanova Wildcats face off against the North Carolina Tar Heels for the National Championship. For Villanova (34-5, 16-2, 1st in Big East), this current run has been an abject study in exorcising demons, as they washed away five disappointingly premature exits over the last six years, to advance to their first National Final since their fabled Championship side that upset Georgetown back in 1985. In reaching this point, the Wildcats have earned what are arguably the two most impressive victories of this tournament, knocking off No. One Overall seed Kansas (64-59) in the Elite Eight, before utterly annihilating Oklahoma (95-51) in Saturday’s Final Four. Last weekend against the Jayhawks, Jay Wright’s charges put forth a relentless defensive performance, forcing sixteen turnovers, while smothering their opponent on the perimeter yielding just 6-of-22 shooting from beyond the arc (27.3%). The newly anointed Coach of the Year saw his outfit overcome a relatively pedestrian offensive outing, mustering only 40.4% shooting themselves, yet while their own prowess from three was quite meager (4-of-18, 22.2%), they were able to break down the Kansas defense with penetration and finish at the rim, completing half of their thirty-four field goal attempts from within the three-point line. And that aggressiveness was rewarded with many trips to the Charity Stripe, where they held a significant advantage over their opponent, calmly netting all but one of their nineteen Free-Throws, outscoring Kansas by a decisive eleven points. However, as elating as that victory was, it paled in comparison to their romp in the National Semifinal a week later. To put it simply, their triumph was historic. Hardly anyone outside of Philadelphia could have predicted a forty-four-point blowout over Two Seed Oklahoma, particularly given the fact that the Sooners humiliated these very same Wildcats on a neutral floor back on December 7th, by twenty-three points. And certainly not with newly christened Naismith Player of the Year Buddy Hield leading the charge. Nonetheless, the reigning Big East Champions absolutely eviscerated Lon Kruger’s charges, effectively ending the game before the midway point, leading 42-28 at Intermission, before promptly outscoring them by a staggering thirty points in the Second Half. Surely, the Villanova faithful must had flashbacks to that historic night in n1985, given the otherworldy efficient shooting displayed by their team; the ‘Cats shot a blistering 71.4% from the field, including 11-of-18 from downtown (61.1%), while making good on fourteen of their nineteen freebies (73.7%). Junior Guard Josh Hart led the way with twenty-three points on 10-of-12 shooting (83.3%), along with eight rebounds, four assists, and a pair of steals, while Kris Jenkins posted eighteen points, draining 4-of-7 from three (57.1%), while accumulating eight rebounds and two steals of his own. With that said, though it’s easy to lose track of in the face of such overwhelming offense, credit must be given to Wright for putting together such an effective game plan on the defensive end of the court, completely negating the presence of Hield, who had been confounding opponents throughout the tourney. Indeed, the numbers at the end of the game were startling; Oklahoma was relegated to a scant 31.7% shooting overall, including a miserable 6-of-27 from beyond the arc (22.2%), while Hield could only muster nine points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field (33.3%), including a dismal 1-of-8 from long-range (12.5%). In fact, after making his first three, the sharpshooter went dry for the remainder of the contest, wilting under Villanova’s defensive pressure, accounting for four of the Sooners’ seventeen turnovers. Now, after such a lopsided affair, where else is their for Wright and his charges to possibly go? North Carolina’s size puts them at a severe disadvantage at the rim, which means escaping an encounter in which they barely shoot over 40.0% (as they did against Kansas) is rather unlikely. Holding their own on the glass will be mandatory (26.1 Defensive Rebounds, 13th Overall), but continuing to harass their opposition’s backcourt will prove to be most successful. If they can get Marcus Paige and Joel Berry out of synch, then the Tar Heels will become one-dimensional offensively and far easier to defend in general. Getting to the Stripe will also go along way towards slowing down that vaunted Fast Break, for their 78.2% Free-Throw Percentage is the second-best in the country.
Meanwhile, while their opponent tonight has clearly taken the more glamourous path to the National Final, for North Carolina (33-6, 14-4, 1st in ACC) has simply taken care of business to this point. Roy Williams and his charges have rarely been tested throughout their current run, with the highest seed they’ve faced being a No. Five. After pasting Sixteen Seed Florida Gulf Coast (83-67) in the Opening Round, the Tar Heels easily disposed of Nine Seed Providence (85-66), Five Seed Indiana (101-86), Six Seed Notre Dame (88-74), and most recently Ten Seed Syracuse (83-66) in the Final Four this past Saturday in rather short succession. If in fact they win their third National Title since Williams arrived in 2004, could there possibly be a National Champion that endured an easier rout to success? For the third time this season they prevailed over fellow ACC inhabitant Syracuse, proving unfazed against the Orange’s signature 2-3 Zone Defense. And while their previous meeting was a rather tight affair, this third encounter was anything but; North Carolina succeeded primarily in dictating tempo throughout the game, pulling away shorty before Halftime, where they led 39-28. While the Backcourt Renaissance of Paige and Berry propelled them to the Final Four, it was their sizable Frontcourt that helped them to their first National Final since 2009, as the trio of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Justin Jackson dominated. The triumvirate accounted for forty-seven points on 19-of-32 shooting (59.4%), with all of those field goals coming within the Three-Point Arc, along with twenty rebounds, four assists, three steals, and three blocks. Johnson and Meeks alone combined for nine offensive rebounds, helping their team take advantage of a commanding 43-31 differential on the boards. On the night, Carolina shot a healthy 53.8% from the floor, including 64.6% from inside the perimeter, making more field goals in that regard (31) than Syracuse made in the entire game (27). And as the Orange clearly looked ill-equipped to play at their opponent’s pace, they all but collapsed offensively, shooting only 40.9% from the field, including a miserable 8-of-25 from three (32.0%). Furthermore, they dished out a scant five assists, while failing to take advantage of their thirteen Free-Throw Attempts, making a poor four (30.8%). So in the end, familiarity did not breed the competition many thought it would. With that said, Villanova poses a significant step up in class from their previous opponents, as they figure to test the Heels in a way that they haven’t over the past three weeks. As they proved against Hield and Oklahoma, the Wildcats have disrupted some of the best perimeter attacks in the country over these past few weeks, which creates a very favorable matchup against the aforementioned Paige and Berry. To great publicity, the former has undergone a maddeningly inconsistent Senior campaign, having dealt with a litany of injuries that at times appeared to have shaken his confidence on the court, which is not something that you want with a Point Guard. His shooting percentage slumped to 39.8%, with his three-point percentage standing at 34.8% despite attempting the most three-pointers on the roster. To help facilitate improvement, Williams deployed the sharpshooting Berry (36.8%) as a second floor general, giving his teammate the luxury of playing off the ball more in an effort to find his shooting touch once again. At times during the tourney it seemed to work perfectly (30-of-85, 35.3%), providing desperate spacing for one of the most effective Frontcourts in the country, but if Villanova are able to negate that threat, then they will be able collapse on Johnson and Meeks. Of course, they’re also going to have to prove that they can play those Bigs straight up, for needing help will only give the Paige and Co. easier looks from three.