Ten things you do not know about this North Carolina basketball team on the eve of Monday’s 9:20 p.m. national championship game vs. Gonzaga, including who will be the Tar Heels’ X factor in the title contest and how Theo Pinson knew that a key free throw Saturday night would be short:
1) Before North Carolina senior Kennedy Meeks got his season-and career-saving rebound Saturday night against Oregon, he first missed two free throws of his own with 5.8 seconds to go and UNC clinging to a 77-76 lead. Meeks’ first free throw clanked off the front rim, and Theo Pinson gave an interesting explanation of what happened next. It was a free-throw theory I have not heard before.
“It’s hard to recover from missing a free throw short,” Pinson said. “If it’s long, you have a better chance of making the second one. But if it’s short, there’s a good chance that you’re going to miss the second one, and that it’s going to be short, too.”
With that on his mind, Pinson gambled on Meeks missing short again, timed his leap perfectly and out-jumped Oregon’s Jordan Bell and tipped the ball out to Joel Berry. If not for that save, Meeks never would have had a chance to redeem himself with a rebound of his own after Berry’s two misses.
2) My X factor for Monday night is Isaiah Hicks. As good as Meeks was, he’s not going to go for 25 points and 14 rebounds on Gonzaga’s stable of seven-footers. Hicks was 1-for-12 with two turnovers and only two rebounds in a horrible game Saturday. Meeks can’t do it alone again – not against the Zags.
Huntersville’s Luke Maye has to hit a couple of shots vs. Gonzaga, too, to stretch the Bulldogs’ defense. After his buzzer-beater and 17 points against Kentucky a week ago, Maye had only two points Saturday vs. Oregon and didn’t make a field goal. But Hicks is essential. An introspective player who can get down on himself, Hicks has to be better.
“It’s a tough time for him as an individual,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of Hicks Sunday. “I keep trying to tell him I believe in him.”
3) Williams and Gonzaga coach Mark Few are good buddies, having gambled, played cards and dined together over the years. When Few was asked Sunday what one clear advantage UNC had over Gonzaga, he quipped: “Coaching.”
4) Williams and Few once got a bunch of their assistants together in Memphis in 2009 prior to an NCAA tournament game after Williams suggested a joint gambling trip after they each put their teams to bed. Few was up for it, and they both drove their coaches down to Tunica, Miss., where they played craps and lost some money in the wee hours of the morning.
On the way back, a patrolman pulled Williams over, but recognized him and gave him only a warning. Williams then pleaded with the patrolman: “Mark Few from Gonzaga is about 10 minutes behind me in a Ford Fiesta just like this one (both coaches were driving NCAA courtesy cars). I want you to pull his rear end over, too, scare him to death like you did me.”
Said Few Sunday of those cops: “They missed us.... He (Williams) came running up to my assistants the next day – ‘Did you? Did you?’ ... I told the cops to pull you guys over. We skated through there, luckily.”
Few, trying to win the first-ever NCAA team championship of any kind for Gonzaga (UNC has 47), said Williams had taught him “you can win at the highest level and not cut corners.”
It should be pointed out here that North Carolina as a school remains under a seemingly endless NCAA investigation for academic fraud, although the case involves none of the current players and Williams said again Sunday that “there were no allegations against men’s basketball.”
5) If you like round numbers, Monday’s final will be the 100th NCAA tournament game that Williams has ever coached. Only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (119) has coached more of them. Williams is 75-24 in NCAA tournament games in his career at UNC and Kansas and is going for his third national championship.
6) Here’s another round number. It has been 50 years since UNC shot as badly as it did Saturday night and still won an NCAA tournament game, which provides some historical perspective on how fortunate the Tar Heels were to beat Oregon. UNC shot 36.8 percent vs. the Ducks, which is usually a recipe for a loss. The last time UNC shot that poorly and won an NCAA tournament game was against Princeton in 1967.
7) There were 77,612 people in the Arizona Cardinals’ home stadium watching basketball Saturday night. About 70,000 of them had a pretty bad seat. Two who did not, though, were a couple of pretty extraordinary wide receivers who hung out a little together.
Larry Fitzgerald was feeling right at home at the University of Phoenix Stadium, since he has run routes there for years. For awhile, Fitzgerald was chatting up Odell Beckham Jr., who had a front-row seat. Beckham later acknowledged and posed for the UNC student section after hearing chants of “OBJ! OBJ!”
8) Williams, who has a vast repository of historical basketball references always at the ready, was asked a question Sunday about the plethora of in-state players in prominent roles for these Tar Heels. While answering it, he mentioned there was once an in-state player North Carolina didn’t pay close enough attention to that the late Dean Smith stayed “mad” about for years.
That player was Cornbread Maxwell, star of the Charlotte 49ers in the 1970s.
9) With 17 rebounds against Kentucky in the Elite Eight and then 14 vs. Oregon, West Charlotte product Meeks has vaulted to fifth on UNC’s all-time rebounding list. The list of players Meeks has passed in the last three games is pretty impressive: Antawn Jamison, Brad Daugherty, Mitch Kupchak and Brice Johnson. Meeks has no shot, however, of catching Tyler Hansbrough, who is No. 1 in rebounding by a wide margin.
10) Williams said Sunday that the players he has “been on hardest” in his coaching career would be Johnson and Meeks, in that order. Of Meeks, he said: “He keeps coming back... I keep pushing him. And hopefully at the end we’ll both look back on it and think it’s been a great partnership.”