You can watch the game on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET.
The last time these two teams played, the Tar Heels got redemption for their 2016 title-game loss, beating the Zags 71-65.
But a lot can change in two years. Let’s look at three key points that will inform our prediction for this matchup.
Gonzaga still has the best offense in the country, but its defense is more than lacking
Northern Colorado may have taken the mantle as the top-ranked team in offensive rating, but that’s through three fewer games and a much weaker schedule than the second-place team: Gonzaga.
The Zags are averaging 94.1 points per game on the seventh toughest schedule so far this season — an extremely impressive feat. It helps to have three different players that average 16.9 points or more per game (Hachimura at 22.2, Norvell Jr. at 17.6, Clarke at 16.9).
While that’s a handful for any team, it may not be as big of an issue for North Carolina. Both of the Tar Heels’ losses came to teams that were near the top of Division I in defense. Teams that can shut down UNC’s post game and hamstring the transition offense are the Tar Heels’ kryptonite so far.
But Gonzaga’s defensive rating is the 227th-best out of 353, and has been exposed at times this season, like when Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield went 6-for-10 from the 3-point line in last week’s upset. The Tar Heels know how to stretch a defense, often working inside out. And with Cameron Johnson, Coby White, and sometimes Luke Maye lighting it up from beyond the arc, that makes for a lethal combination.
North Carolina’s pace could exploit Gonzaga’s thin lineup
Gonzaga is dealing with two crucial injuries right now. Forward Killian Tillie — who averaged 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds last year — has yet to play this season due to an ankle injury. And in late November, guard Geno Crandall (who was averaging 5 points, 2.3 assists, and 1.5 rebounds in 18.2 minutes per game), fractured his right hand, forcing him out for 4-6 weeks.
So while Gonzaga does have four different players averaging 10 points per game, the team isn’t as deep as North Carolina. Gonzaga relies heavily on Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell Jr., who each average more than 30 minutes per game (and happen to be the Zags’ top scorers), while the Tar Heels have a much more balanced distribution, with no player averaging more than 28 minutes per game, and 10 players in double-digit minutes.
All that sets up the next point strongly in UNC’s favor: North Carolina is the 13th-fastest team in the country so far, averaging 78.7 possessions per game. That pace could be a weapon against Gonzaga’s relatively shallow bench, as a game with more possessions naturally lends itself to more foul trouble and less rest.
Gonzaga hasn’t lost back-to-back games in more than four years (but it hasn’t been tested like this)
Gonzaga is coming off a painful loss to then-No. 7 Tennessee in Phoenix, which dropped the Bulldogs from No. 1 to No. 4 in the latest AP poll. But history is on the side of Mark Few’s team: Gonzaga hasn’t lost back-to-back games since February of 2014. They’ve played 167 games since then.
— Andy Katz (@TheAndyKatz) December 12, 2018
That’s a monumental streak, but it isn’t as relevant here as it may seem. In that entire span, Gonzaga has only played ranked teams back-to-back three times, including NCAA tournament games. Though there was almost a full week between games, facing Tennessee on a neutral court and then North Carolina on the road is a grueling task. The Tar Heels are coming off of a tune-up game against UNCW on Dec. 5, which they won 97-69 after falling at No. 7 Michigan, 84-67.
What’s more, Gonzaga has only played one road game this year — against Creighton, which is No. 58 in the NET. North Carolina sits at No. 16. While beating the Blue Jays in Omaha is a tough task, it doesn’t compare to facing a rested UNC team in the Dean Dome.
So while history may be on the side of Gonzaga, the current situation seems to lean towards the home team.
UNC is in need of a big win, and the stage is set against Gonzaga. The Tar Heels are coming off of nine days’ rest and are playing at home against a depleted team fresh off a neutral-court upset. Gonzaga has a phenomenal offense, but if North Carolina can stay efficient and force a quick tempo, they should have plenty of opportunities. Prediction: North Carolina wins, 87-85.