After last year’s last second loss to Villanova, the University of North Carolina Men’s Basketball team vowed that they would get back to the championship and win. The team dedicated this season to obtaining one thing, revenge. All season, the focus was on preparing to win one game; the one game that just barely slipped out of their grasp last April. The veteran Tar Heel team fought all season through the toughest conference in college basketball, preparing the whole time for the one game that writes the history books. After a three week tournament featuring sixty-eight of the best teams in the country, UNC finally avenged last year’s loss and clinched their sixth championship as a school, their first since 2009 and their third under Head Coach Roy Williams.
UNC beat Gonzaga 71-65 (only a point off the 72-65 final that I predicted pregame; why couldn’t Joel Berry II make that free throw with seven seconds left?!?) in a defensive battle. The referees called the game tight, leading to foul trouble for both teams. In total, there were forty-four fouls called. A game-changing play was Gonzaga’s freshman forward Zach Collins fouling out with five minutes left in the game. Collins was the only Gonzaga player who had success against the length of the UNC big men. As predicted, Przemek Karnowski, one of the greatest players in the history of Gonzaga basketball, had a bad game going only 1-8 from the field for a total of nine points. Had Karnowski gotten going, the game would have been very different. Finally, while Justin Jackson and Nigel Williams-Goss played solid games, it was Joel Berry II who carried UNC to the victory by scoring twenty-two points on 7-19 shooting and six assists. Berry, who battled ankle injuries all tournament, put the pain behind him and had a game to remember.
While the championship game may not have been the greatest product, highlighted by an excess of fouls and missed open shots, the tournament provided some of the best basketball and the best stories of the year.
Best Cinderella Story: South Carolina
This one was a very easy pick. While Michigan made a nice run to the Sweet Sixteen, where they came up one point short of the Elite Eight, and Gonzaga proved all of the doubters wrong by going to the school’s first ever Final Four, the biggest surprise of the tournament was South Carolina. The only team that made a good case other than South Carolina was Xavier, who as an eleven seed went to the Elite Eight. I favor South Carolina though because they advanced to the Final Four, and because the strength of opponents up to the Elite Eight was even (both beat a good two-seed, a weak three-seed, and a weak first round opponent) I favor the team that went farther. While Xavier made a great run, the glass slipper fit for South Carolina. The seventh seeded Gamecocks finished the regular season with a record of 22-10, good for fourth in the SEC. The team then went on to lose in their first game in the SEC tournament to an Alabama team that didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. After the disappointing end to the season for Frank Martin’s squad, UC Davis, Texas Southern, and South Dakota State, all of which were sixteen seeds, were all more popular picks to reach the Final Four than South Carolina was, on ESPN Tournament Challenge. The biggest shock of the tournament was in the Second Round when South Carolina shocked the Blue Devils, a favorite to win the tournament. The Gamecocks won with good offense and great defense led by senior point guard Sindarius Thornwell and sophomore P.J. Dozier on a magical Cinderella run to the Final Four.
Biggest Disappointment: Duke
The real biggest disappointment of the Tournament was the ACC as a conference (UNC was the only ACC school to reach the Sweet Sixteen), but as a team, Duke was the most disappointing. The Blue Devils came in red hot, playing fantastic basketball. They had just pulled off the impossible, winning four games in four nights to win the ACC Tournament, and they were very close to grabbing a one-seed. Mike Krzyzewksi had his team playing their best basketball at the most important time of the year, and most people believed the team would easily come out of the East Region and win the whole tournament. Then, on March 19 in Greenville, South Carolina, Duke’s stacked roster decided to shut down in the second half: The team was outscored 65-51. Duke could not stop South Carolina in the second half, and after winning their first five postseason games, the luck ran out for the Duke Blue Devils. Louisville was another second seeded ACC team that lost in the second round, but they were not nearly as good of a team as Duke. Villanova is also a viable option for most disappointing, but the 2016 National Champions were not thought to be as good as Duke; many people believed they got the one seed because they had a great record in a weak conference. The Blue Devils lose many of the stars of this year and will need to reload if they want another shot for a title next year.
Most Proven: Gonzaga
While Sindarius Thornwell certainly proved the most as a player, and the SEC proved the most as a conference, Gonzaga took the next step this year. Gonzaga has been a good team for the past twenty years, but they have always been viewed as a second echelon team on account of their lack of a Final Four appearances. When they had a great season, it was attributed to their weak conference and schedule. When they earned a top seed in the Tournament, they were always the team that people picked to be eliminated early, because many times, they were. When this year’s team went 29-1 in the regular season and then easily won the West Coast Conference Tournament, people did not believe that they could actually compete with other elite teams. People believed Gonzaga was a first seed only because of their good record against bad teams, and many people shied away from picking the Zags to advance even through the second weekend. The Zags squashed any doubts about the program, though, this season with the run they made to the Championship. Mark Few and his players established themselves as one of the top programs in college hoops. North Carolina may have walked away with the title, but Gonzaga gained the most during this tournament.
While the National Championship may not have lived up to the fans’ expectations, the Tournament provided many story lines, with low seeded outsiders competing with and in many cases beating the favored blue bloods. Teams carried by upperclassmen took down the one-and-dones. And North Carolina got their revenge. For three weeks, Men’s College Basketball was the king of the sports world, because in March, anything can happen.
Featured image: cbssports.com