More than a national championship was decided in the final game of the college basketball season between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and North Carolina Tar Heels.
Yes, the Tar Heels won their sixth national championship and head coach Roy Williams won his third title in his 100th tournament game. But there was more on the line Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
For Carolina, the theme all season long was one of redemption.
In the 2016 title game, Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit an off-balance three-point shot to tie the score at 74 with 4.7 seconds left. The game appeared headed for overtime before Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono found Kris Jenkins for a buzzer-beating, championship clinching three-point shot.
The 2017 title game was more than just a way to decide a champion. The so-called one-and-done system was being tested as well.
Both the Tar Heels and Bulldogs were led by upperclassmen. North Carolina lost two key components of their national runner-up squad: Paige and Brice Johnson, who were seniors who completed their eligibility and were drafted by NBA teams (Paige by the Brooklyn Nets, Johnson by the Los Angeles Clippers).
In the past, college teams were led by upperclassmen. If it just so happened that a player was that damn good, it was still expected he would stay in college for two or three years. It made the collegiate game better because you could follow teams and players more readily than you can at certain D-I schools. It also made the NBA game better because players were battle tested and more mature when they entered the league.
Now many blue-chip recruits think they’re Moses Malone or Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett or LeBron James. Now we have coaches who land recruits by basically telling them that they can get to the NBA simply by donning their uniform for a semester.
The 2017 title game also gave us a brand of basketball we’re not used to seeing. It was a physical, bruising game reminiscent of a time before everyone turned into a three-point specialist.
Basketball fans have become accustomed to teams shooting a plethora of three-point shots. They seem to have forgotten, or never knew, the three-point shot was once considered a gimmick. It wasn’t added to the NBA until 1979. The NCAA didn’t add it until 1986. When properly utilized, the three-point shot is a dangerous weapon. It loses its potency when everybody and their father starts jacking up shots.
People (including James and his former running mate Dwyane Wade) complained about the officiating. Officiating wasn’t an issue. If it had been, the coaches would’ve had something to say about it. Williams is a Hall of Fame coach and Few is the third fastest coach to reach 500 wins. If there was a problem with the officiating, they would’ve had said so.
There were two plays that had people really up in arms.
Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks and Gonzaga’s Silas Melson were trying to grab a loose ball with a 66-65 Tar Heels lead and 53 seconds left in the game. Referee Mike Eades ruled it a held ball and Carolina maintained possession. It was later shown that Meek’s hand was on the end line while his arm was around the ball. On the ensuing possession, Carolina scored making it a 68-65 lead with 26 seconds remaining.
This was after Gonzaga put up an air ball that was somehow ruled a Carolina block. The Bulldogs hit a three on the ensuing possession they never should have had.
Both teams ended up with 22 fouls. The officiating was sometimes questionable but there was nothing that deserved the amount of vitriol received during and after the game…unless, of course, you were rooting for Gonzaga.
What riled people up was a game that was essentially a throwback. A defensive contest by two veteran squads that wasn’t pretty but was sure hell exciting to watch if one appreciates the way Dr. James Naismith intended basketball to be played.
With all the complaining about the officiating and everyone people found wrong with the 2017 title game, viewership was up 20% from a year ago. This is a surprising trend considering the game was a between one of college basketball’s blue bloods and a team making their first appearance in the championship game.
North Carolina won their sixth national championship in Phoenix last evening but the real winners were basketball fans everywhere. The game was reminiscent of a time when players stayed in college, coaches didn’t sacrifice the game for personal benefit, and the product on the court was just better, both on the collegiate and professional hardwoods.