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The final two: Middleweight Gonzaga vs. mighty North Carolina

This whole NCAA Tournament has felt a bit off. From the dearth of Round 1 upsets to the football-first SEC sending three times as many teams to the Sweet 16 (and then the Elite Eight) as the hoops-snooty ACC to a Final Four featuring two first-timers and a team returning after a 78-year absence … we end up with two No. 1 seeds playing for the title.

But there’s a catch to that, too: One of them is Gonzaga.

The Zags caught the eye by beating Florida, Iowa State and Arizona in the span of nine days in November/December. They’ve been ranked No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings nearly all season. They came within a bad five minutes against BYU from an undefeated regular season. And still we we ask: Can a team from West Coast Conference really be bona fide?

“It’s not 1997 anymore,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Saturday, speaking after Gonzaga held off his Gamecocks in the semis. “They were Cinderella and all that pretty stuff in ‘97. (Actually 1999). They’ve been in this thing for 20 consecutive years. (Almost.) They’re as high-major as high-major can get.”

The team Gonzaga will face has been among the highest of the high since World War II. North Carolina took its first national title in 1957 by upsetting Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in triple overtime. The Big Dipper died in 1999, the same year Gonzaga’s run of consecutive NCAA appearances commenced. The Tar Heels have played for the championship in every decade since, winning it four more times, nearly winning it a year ago in Houston.

This final is the King of Tobacco Road against a Jesuit school that shares a state with Seattle and Microsoft. (Gonzaga is based in Spokane.) This is the program of Lennie Rosenbluth and Charlie Scott and James Worthy and Antawn Jamison and Tyler Hansbrough and – oh, yeah – Michael Jordan against one that first flashed across the sport’s consciousness when a little guard named John Stockton showed up at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials in Bloomington, Ind. (Jordan was there, too.) Gonzaga has been to 20 NCAA Tournaments; Carolina has made 20 Final Fours.

Over past NCAA excursions, Gonzaga became a March fixture without experiencing a moment of utter arrival. It upset people – Stanford, Florida, St. John’s – but as its seeding improved would itself get upset. (By Nevada, by Wichita State, by 14-loss Syracuse last year). It reached the Elite Eight twice, losing to the eventual champ both times. Nobody disputed that the Zags were a great middleweight, but in an era that saw Butler play for two NCAA titles and George Mason and VCU and Wichita State crash the Final Four, Gonzaga remained an “almost.”

Said coach Mark Few: “Over this run of 20 years, we probably had three or four (teams) that could have made it here … My stance all along was you’ve just got to be good enough and then eventually it’s going to happen. We wanted to stay nationally relevant, and I think we’ve done that year after year. And then eventually you’ll kick the door down and break through, like we did this year.”

And yet: Even after dispatching South Carolina, the Bulldogs had to endure questions about their level of competition – 11th-seeded Xavier in the West Regional final, the seventh-seeded Gamecocks here. Said Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss: “We only played an 11 seed because they had to beat higher seeds. We can’t control who we played. Obviously these teams have all beaten really good teams … No one’s here by accident.”

Then: “You have 37 wins in a college season – that’s just unbelievable. And to be playing the last game of the season, we have a chance to play for it all. And we’re here to win it.”

They might. These Tar Heels aren’t as good as the crew that lost to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ immortal buzzer basket. This is basically the same bunch without Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. “This team has been a stop-and-start,” coach Roy Williams said. “One step forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back.” (Remember, these Heels lost to Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve.)

En route to last year’s final, Carolina won its first five NCAA games by at least 14 points. These Heels trailed Arkansas and Kentucky by five points late and nearly collapsed at the end against Oregon on Saturday, missing four free throws in 1.8 seconds while clinging to the last vestige of what was a 10-point lead. They were saved by two offensive rebounds.

“I’m so happy and relieved that we have another shot,” said Theo Pinson, whose back-slap of Kennedy Meeks’ missed foul shot became the first of those vital rebounds. “We’ve dreamed about this every day since that game and that shot Kris made.”

And if Carolina wins this time? “I can just throw away that tape,” Pinson said, “and look at my ring.”

In the Heels’ path is Gonzaga. Said Few: “The product, the brand, the players, the team that we’re putting out there on the floor we feel can compete with anybody in the country on any given night. But we understand we don’t have that tradition that dates back 40, 50, 60 years. We defer to that. We also think that this is the national brand and national entity, and we’re not going anywhere.”

The Vegas line favors Carolina. The KenPom ratings pick Gonzaga by four points, which is a hefty spread in analytic circles. For the record, KenPom had Villanova winning last year.

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