Decades from now, folks might note the narrow margins — Gonzaga by four points, then North Carolina by one, ultimately Carolina by six — and think, “That Final Four have been some show!” But that’s only if YouTube isn’t around to tell the whole grim story. Yes, every game had a gripping finish. “Gripping,” however, isn’t synonymous with “good.”
Gonzaga went eight minutes and 28 seconds of Monday’s title game without a basket, which was nearly half the second half, and somehow the Zags stayed within four points. North Carolina missed 23 of 27 3-point shots in the final and finished the NCAA tournament making 29.4 percent, the worst by any champ in the trey’s 31 years. Gonzaga made 33.9 percent of its shots Monday, a seasonal low, and still almost matched Carolina (35.6 percent).
Maybe the defense on both sides was just too good. Or maybe the offenses were just that bad. Certainly the officiating — the game had 44 fouls to 46 baskets — was obtrusive bordering on incompetent. Smush this all together and you have what was surely the worst NCAA final to see a lead change in the final two minutes.
As we know, North Carolina prevailed. Nothing wrong with that. It was probably the nation’s best team, though its season saw wild mood swings. (We can never forget the Tar Heels’ 12-point loss at Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve.) Gonzaga wasn’t as good as its analytic advocates had proclaimed, at least not in this game, and this was easily Carolina’s worst showing of the past two NCAA tournaments. Were the Zags really All That, they would be champs.
Going macro after any season ends is problematic — the temptation to read too much into what might be happenstance is mighty — but it’s possible to view this disappointing tournament as an illustration of college basketball in all its ragged glory. Everyone hates the one-and-dones, and this Final Four might have housed only one of those types. (Gonzaga sub Zach Collins, who fouled out in 14 minutes Monday.) But there’s a reason the one-and-dones leave after a year: They’re gifted enough to be coveted by teams willing to pay for their services.
Check NBAdraft.net. The first non-freshman, non-international player it projects to be taken is sophomore Ivan Rabb of California at No. 16, which is out of the lottery. The first senior it projects is Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina with the 30th and final pick of Round 1. As much as we like to think those who stay in college do it for the love of academe, they’re simply not desirable enough to leave early.
One-and-dones aren’t good for college basketball writ large, but they’re fun while they’re one’ing-and-done’ing. When Kentucky won with three one-and-dones in 2012 and Duke with three more in 2015, it proved that such a thing could be done. The failure of both those programs to reach this Final Four this time with similar top-end talent — and also UCLA with Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf — indicates that such harmonic convergences might have been the exceptions.
It’s hard to start over every blessed October. By the time your players get to know one another, they’re bound for the NBA. And yet: Every school capable of attracting a one-and-done is more than willing to do it. Over the weekend North Carolina coach Roy Williams lamented the effect of the never-ending NCAA investigation on his recruiting: The lordly Heels went from stockpiling McDonald’s All-Americans to scrounging.
Carolina still had five McDonald’s men on this team, but four were high school seniors in 2013 or 2014. The Raleigh News & Observer broke the story of North Carolina’s alleged sham classes for athletes in 2014. Since then, the Heels have landed only Tony Bradley, a freshman sub who could choose to become a one-and-done. (He’s not projected as a Round 1 pick.)
As uplifting as the Team Concept can be, there’s a place in college basketball for the big-timers. Trouble is, none of them — not Ball or Leaf, not De’Aaron Fox or Malik Monk, not Jayson Tatum or Harry Giles — played in this Final Four, which was won by a team that nearly won it last year.
Irresistible though the “redemption” angle was and is, these Heels weren’t as good as the team that lost to Villanova. A year ago North Carolina finished second while missing six free throws in two Final Four games. It won this time despite missing 19. It didn’t win because it was a great team. It won because there were no great teams.