North Carolina And Gonzaga Face Off For NCAA Men's Basketball Title

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 3:13 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's not every year that the men's NCAA basketball tournament ends with the two best teams squaring off, but tonight's Division I title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga is kind of a Goliath versus Goliath matchup. NPR's Tom Goldman is in Arizona for the game, and he joins me now from member station KJZZ. Hiya, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Robert - lamenting that there are no Davids.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Let's start with goliath Gonzaga. This is a team that never made it to the Final Four before this year. This year, though, they've lost only one game all season.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. And let's not forget Gonzaga was ranked number one for a good portion of the regular season. And this is the 19th straight year the school has made it to the tournament. So although people like to paint the Bulldogs as the little team that could from the far outpost of Eastern Washington state, they're a tough team with a good shot at winning their first national title tonight. And they know this is the opportunity to prove all that stuff, that they can hang with the big guys.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, if you'd been on Mars for the past several months and just came back, you could guess almost that the University of North Carolina Tar Heels would be in the favorite. Why are they favorites by just a point and a half? And what's their story this year?

GOLDMAN: Well, I think it's because, you know, the small odds are because they haven't really played up to their great potential. You ask a lot of the pundits, and I believe every single pundit is gathered here in Phoenix. You ask them who the best team in the country is this entire year and they say North Carolina. But, you know, they haven't shown that, and I think there's some expectation that they will tonight.

They of course - their reputation - they're blue blood, Robert. They're powder blue blood, last year's runners up. They're in their 11th championship game, trying to win their sixth title in school history.

SIEGEL: But UNC athletics have been under the cloud of an academic scandal now for several years. Several athletes were signed up to take fake classes where they didn't have to do any classwork. Is there any talk about that now?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, you know, a few reporters have brought it up here in Phoenix this week, and I think they're looked at as party crashers pretty much. People here want to have fun. The players and coaches want to focus on the games. But yeah, North Carolina's athletic director this week said there's no timeline and resolution of this case. It's been investigated. A comprehensive report came out three years ago and showed that there were these fake classes being offered.

The contention is that football and basketball players took part in this, which allegedly went on for neary two decades. Now, Roy Williams, the current Hall of Fame Tar Heels coach, was coaching for some of that time. The basketball team hasn't directly been implicated. Williams has repeated that several times here in the Phoenix. But at least one former player has come forward in the past and said he took bogus classes. So yeah, there's a cloud but not enough to seriously overshadow the rah-rah excitement here.

SIEGEL: Well, what should we expect to see in tonight's final game, Gonzaga versus UNC?

GOLDMAN: Robert, this game could highlight the unglamorous act of rebounding the ball. North Carolina does it better than anyone on the offensive end, meaning when the Tar Heels miss, they often grab the ball for second and third chances to score. The onus is on Gonzaga to keep North Carolina from rebounding so much.

They need to box out like crazy - that's a term you've probably heard in the last week - and prevent the Tar Heels from crashing the boards, as they say. Two pretty evenly matched teams - they both have size and deep rosters, great coaches - should be a close one that comes down to a play, a moment - one shining moment, Robert.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) OK, enjoy it then. That's NPR's Tom Goldman.

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