GLENDALE, Ariz. —This NCAA Championship game is about redemption.
This NCAA Championship game is about respect.
This is all hooey, really, but we’ll go with it for a moment.
It is about redemption for the North Carolina Tar Heels because theylost the 2016 title on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Villanova forward Kris Jenkins that will forever rank among the most famous shots in NCAA Tournament history.
It is about respect for the Gonzaga Bulldogs because even after the public scoffed at their revolutionary advance from mid-major to national power because they annually failed to advance beyond the Sweet 16 —and then scoffed after a 2015 Elite Eight run because the Zags still hadn’t reached a Final Four —many still scoff again because GU’s run to the title game was “too easy” with a No. 11 seed as the opponent in the regional final and a No. 7 seed in the Final Four.
The truth, though, is it’s about none of this. For each team, it is about this one opportunity to win it all, to be the group bathing in the streamers and confetti that will be released from the University of Phoenix Stadium at the final buzzer, and not the one assaulted by this deluge.
College basketball is a transitory sport. No team ever is precisely the same from year to year. Each is a product of its program’s history, of course, but the Tar Heels who lost last season were led by guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson, both seniors. They almost certainly will be delighted if the Heels can win, but they will not be a part of it. They cannot be redeemed, so to speak.
“I was just so happy and so relieved we have another shot. I dreamed about this every day since that game and that shot that Kris made against us,” Pinson said. “Now we get another shot to make up for that, I guess. And we can do it for Marcus and Brice, also.”
The Gonzaga players who blew that big lead against UCLA in the 2006 Sweet 16, or the one to Wichita State in the 2013 second round, are either playing professionally or finished competitively. They were essential to building toward this moment but can’t do much to help now.
North Carolina talks about being fueled by the opportunity to make up for what it lost last season because it needs to be fueled by something. For the same reason you listen to Prince or Bruno Mars or Foo Fighters or Taylor Swift during a workout, the Tar Heels needed motivation to push them through the investment necessary to traverse the college basketball offseason training and regular-season grind.
If it weren’t losing in the title game, the motivationwould have been rooted in falling short of the Final Four, or getting upset in a first-round game, or whatever. And the media would seize that story because it’s easily explained and processed.
Did using the title-game loss help the Heels? Probably. They’re here. So it’s likely the thought of that night in Houston was worth another couple reps on the squat rack, or another 100 jumpers on a July afternoon. It serves as a bonding agent for the members of the team who experienced that heartbreak 12 months ago.
Williams-Goss said in the locker room following the Zags’ semifinal victory over South Carolina that when the team first assembled, the players agreed that any goal but an NCAA Championship would be “selling ourselves short.” Asked Sunday if he felt as though Gonzaga were a mid-major program, he again mentioned his belief that the team always believed it was capable of winning the title.
Asked if the Zags relished the opportunity to play an elite opponent in North Carolina after the road they traversed to the title game, he wasn’t as diplomatic.
“I’m not going to lie to you: That question really bothers me. We played who we played because they won games,” Williams-Goss said Sunday. “You look at the teams that South Carolina beat, they beat Duke, they beat Baylor by 20, they beat Marquette, and Xavier beat Maryland, they beat the 3-seed Florida State by 25, they beat Arizona. So we can only play who wins those games. We relish the opportunity to play whoever we’re playing.”
Most likely Williams-Goss will mention that to his teammates during the hours leading up to the championship tip-off: They still don’t believe in us.
The Zags will take motivation where they can get it. The Heels will remember last year’s defeat. When they play, though, all that will matter is the 40 minutes that remain of the 2017 college basketball season. In a season that typically has been a bit odd, they have been undoubtedly the two best, most complete teams. That’s what got them here. The rest is packaging.