By Jason Keidel
Most see tonight, the culmination of March Madness, when we crown a men’s national basketball champion, as a coin-flip between North Carolina and Gonzaga. Even Vegas sees it as a virtual toss-up, inserting the Tar Heels as a 1.5-point favorite.
But in terms of history and pedigree, the spread is considerably wider.
In case you haven’t seen the numbers, North Carolina has won 122 NCAA Tournament games. Gonzaga has won 29.
This is Carolina’s 20th Final Four, and Gonzaga’s first. This is 11th time UNC has played in the national championship game. Again, Gonzaga’s first.
North Carolina has won five national championships. You can guess Gonzaga’s total.
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Roy Williams, head coach of the Tar Heels, has now made nine Final Fours, including his time at Kansas, another national superpower. If there’s a stamp collection of college coaches, Williams is on one of them. He’s merely adding strokes to his final career portrait.
Few just won AP Coach of the Year. His 18-year run with the Zags is admirable, with 27.8 wins per year, 502 wins overall and a catchy handstand after winning their Final Four game against South Carolina. But Few has a few miles to run before he’s at the Williams table.
North Carolina is on Tobacco Road, a few bounce passes from Duke, part of a renowned basketball triumvirate that includes North Carolina State (or used to), in what feels like the ancestral home of the sport. At least since NYC gave it away with point shaving in the 1950s.
Gonzaga is leading a movement from Spokane, a dot on the top left of your American map, in the state of Washington, known culturally for Starbucks, Nirvana and Hendrix. It’s that place over there, that has one heck of an NFL team but lost its NBA team.
North Carolina alums make up a roll call of legends, at least at the college level, if not the NBA, with Billy Cunningham, Phil Ford, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Brad Dougherty and Kenny Smith. And the GOAT, of course; Michael Jordan, as a freshman, beat Georgetown with that baseline jumper to give Dean Smith his first title.
Gonzaga has John Stockton. Who never played in an NCAA Tournament.
About 15 years ago, the New York Yankees were slated to play the Los Angeles (or Anaheim) Angels in the American League playoffs. To italicize the absurd disparity in pedigree between players and franchises, the local NYC papers listed the average playoff tenure of a Yankee as opposed to an Angel. Add to that the historical chasm between franchises, and New Yorkers laughed their way into the series. Until the Angels whipped the Yanks on their way to beating Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in the 2002 World Series.
It’s a cliche that accidentally applies to college sports — hey, the other guys get paid, too. To that end, Gonzaga didn’t come to Arizona as tourists. Not only does Vegas not have a strong feeling about this game, neither does the public. Of the thousands of of brackets (out of millions) that had North Carolina playing Gonzaga in the final game, 50.1 percent have North Carolina winning, with 49.9 percent picking Gonzaga (according to ESPN).
North Carolina doesn’t have a monopoly on fine college players who plan to play professionally. Gonzaga has a few guys who will draw paychecks for playing basketball, including an acrobatic, shot-swatting, 7-foot-1 freshman from Las Vegas named Zach Collins, who may be a lottery pick if he leaves this year.
Unless you are a Carolina fan or alum, it’s hard to see the ancillary benefits of the Tar Heels adding to their bulging trophy case. A sixth national title won’t make them extra great. But if Gonzaga wins, they not only establish themselves as champions and perennial powers, but they also plant a flag for similar programs, like Wichita State and Xavier. Competition is good, not only for the competitors, but for us, the consumer.
Naturally, we don’t want to see the same sights every year, so we visit different places on vacation. Likewise, we don’t want to see the same athletes or teams or programs win every year. We like variety, outliers, those who buck traditional powers. So maybe a victory by Gonzaga isn’t a win for the little guy, but the littler guy. And maybe Mark Few has another handstand — or better — in store.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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