It is part of the charm and uniqueness of the NCAA Tournament that Villanova and North Carolina get just one day off before deciding college basketball’s national title in 2016.
One national championship football game gets at least a week in which to breathe, but the NCAA Tournament is an organism in which the title game commences under 48 hours after the last semifinal ends. There isn’t time enough to break down this game from every conceivable angle… and that applies to the coaching staffs as well as bloggers.
It is with this thought in mind that we’ll offer a brief focus on Monday night’s title tilt between the Wildcats and the Tar Heels.
College basketball national championship games occur on a short turnaround.
Any team which plays a Saturday-Monday stack in its conference during the regular season — or a Thursday-Saturday stack; those also exist in multiple conferences as well — knows what this rhythm demands. It’s rough, but this time, it’s not in the middle of January, and it’s not in a conventional arena. It’s in a dome with over 75,000 people on hand, after a few days of intense media scrutiny.
What helps is that the newness of the dome and (in the case of all four teams here) the freshness of the Final Four experience has been digested. The winners are no longer stepping onto a foreign court when they get to Monday night. So much else about this situation, though, makes for a difficult logistical setup.
That’s a big part of what makes the NCAA tournament so challenging.
Villanova and North Carolina — like every title-game participant through the years — won a national semifinal with extended preparation and rest time. On Semifinal Saturday, the advantages of rest and preparation coincide with the potential drawbacks of the new shooting environment and the nerves which accompany an entrance onto a stage this big and rare. On Monday night, everything is reversed: What is lost in terms of rest and preparation is counterbalanced by familiarity with the setting and — moreover — the satisfaction of having won a game at the Final Four.
The NCAA tournament — on all three weekends — demands that its champion win three first games with extended prep time, and three games on short rest. The team which emerges from six victories might not fend off the toughest collection of six teams — this certainly applies to a North Carolina squad which hasn’t yet beaten a seed higher than 5 — but it certainly overcomes all sorts of distractions and challenges.
Which team will lift itself to a higher level on Monday night?
The two-game-per-weekend dynamic of the NCAA tournament is a small sample size, but there remains something to be said for the economy of moving through these three “two-game tournaments.”
Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield struggled in first games of weekends before busting loose for 36 (VCU) and 37 points (Oregon) in second games. BuddyBall didn’t do anything in the first game of this last weekend; he didn’t get a second game.
Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson scored only 10 points in a Sweet 16 game against 11th-seeded Gonzaga. It stood to reason that Richardson needed to be a lot better two days later for the Orange to beat top-seeded Virginia, and he was. Richardson poured in 23 points, most of them in his late-game scoring surge, to take his team to Houston. Syracuse’s economy of distributed production suggested — not demanded, but suggested — that after Richardson torched Virginia, Michael Gbinije had to go off on Saturday against North Carolina. He was hot against Gonzaga (20 points) when Richardson wasn’t. He wasn’t on fire against Virginia (11 points) when Richardson flourished. Saturday versus UNC, Gbinije struggled, scoring just 12 points on 5-of-18 shooting. Trevor Cooney popped in 22 and Richardson 17, but in order to take down Carolina, Cuse needed a third guy to ring up a big number, and Gbinije came up relatively empty.
How have Villanova and North Carolina fared in the Big Dance, going from game one to game two over a weekend?
These were both top-two seeds, so let’s write off their first weekends. Those are generally warm-up games (though Michigan State and Middle Tennessee might both object to such a claim).
In the second weekend of the Dance, both Nova and UNC shot extremely well in the Sweet 16. Villanova’s slash line — field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and free throw percentage — was 63 percent, 67 percent, and 95 percent against Miami in the Sweet 16. That’s just about untouchable, but Miami didn’t get its teeth into Villanova’s shooters on that Thursday night. The Wildcats moved up in weight class against Kansas in the Elite Eight and came down to earth. Their slash line was 40/22/95. The 95-percent foul shooting (18 of 19) was a central, not merely peripheral, reason the Cats moved on to the Final Four.
North Carolina’s Sweet 16 game produced a 52/55/79 percent slash line. The three-point numbers in particular stood out: 11 of 20 for the 55-percent total. In the Elite Eight against a similarly-seeded Notre Dame team (but one which was familiar, being from the ACC), Carolina went 62/31/83. The three-point stats: 4 of 13.
You’ll immediately notice that as the scene shifted to the Final Four, Villanova promptly re-established its three-point shooting touch against Oklahoma — 11 of 18, 61 percent. North Carolina, against Syracuse, missed its first 12 threes before hitting a few clutch ones late. Overall, Villanova hit 71.4 percent of its field goals on Saturday, Carolina 53.8.
What do all these numbers mean?
Without trying to make sweeping statements, let’s advance a few points:
** UNC fans should be cautiously optimistic, if only because it will be hard for Villanova to shoot at the same exalted level it did against Oklahoma.
** Villanova fans should feel that their team — while perhaps not hitting 71.4 percent — can shoot in the high 50s by spreading the floor with its guards and forcing North Carolina’s bigger lineup to adjust on defense. The Wildcats are getting good shots by executing the basics. Their movement, passing, spacing, and focus are all first-rate. They can continue to create quality opportunities. A 60-percent shooting night would not feel shocking unless stupid stuff (off-balance 30-footers) somehow dropped through the net.
** Villanova fans should also feel good about two other facts: A) Their team played the first game and therefore has more turnaround time. B) The Wildcats put away Oklahoma so early that players should be even fresher.
** North Carolina fans should be concerned about the fact that their shooting percentage against Syracuse was bolstered in part by putback baskets after misses against the Syracuse 2-3 zone. Not only is it easier to rebound against a zone, compared to man-to-man, but Villanova’s low-post defenders are tougher than anyone Syracuse put on the floor.
** UNC can take some comfort in the idea that with its size and length protecting the rim, it can play Villanova’s wings to take away the three-point shot, daring them to put the ball on the deck and go to the hoop where Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks can all protect the rim.
** The Tar Heels can also simply say, “We have a front line we’ll go to battle with any day of the week. Our collection of bodies can wear down Daniel Ochefu and win a protracted battle — maybe not the first half, maybe not even 30 minutes, but by the time 40 are done, we’ll be champions.”
Those are three points for each team. We’ll see which ones win out on Monday night, in the second game of the third and final “two-game-tournament” at the 2016 Big Dance.