GLENDALE, Ariz. — When we think and talk about college basketball — and basketball matchups, in general — we often do it in terms of things that are knowable. We use statistical data to dive into every conceivable angle, and try to figure out where the game will be decided.
But championship basketball is not just about the players on the floor who pour their hearts and souls into a 40-minute contest to decide a winner. It’s a fickle, funny game, with factors that are impossible to prepare for. Factors that are uncontrollable, and out of the hands of the contestants.
Gonzaga learned this on Monday night in its first ever national title game.
Now, let’s be clear on something. This is not a column of excuses for the Bulldogs, who were beaten by North Carolina 71-65. The Tar Heels earned this national championship. Joel Berry earned his Most Outstanding Player award by scoring 22 points and leading a team to only four turnovers against the best defense in the country. Roy Williams and his team of upperclassmen clawed their way through a tough, physical contest to reach the pinnacle of college basketball, and are wholly worthy champions who will enter the history books.
Rather, this column is about the little things that unmistakably alter the course of a basketball game that players have to work around. Call it the will of the basketball gods or the flawed nature of humanity, but sometimes the game is justout of your hands as a player.
Let’s start with Nigel Williams-Goss. The transfer point guard from Washington had just come down and made two difficult shots — including one off a post-up over the long Theo Pinson — when he turned his ankle at the 1:25 mark of the second half trying to establish position again for another look out of the post. It seems cruel that for the entire body’s ambulatory, bipedal system to work, humans are reliant upon the connection of the leg to the foot at a slender link-up point inches from the ground. If he doesn’t roll up his ankle while trying to plant his foot against Berry, maybe the team can make a different play down the stretch. Or maybe they lose. Regardless, the butterfly effect of such an unlucky moment ended up being something of a difference for Gonzaga, who didn’t score again.
“He laid it all out on the line, and he was the guy that obviously kind of strapped us on his back there, especially down the stretch,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of his point guard. “And we were having some real success going to him on some isolations. And he was delivering. And then had a great shot that kind of rolled in and out, and then that last one was tough. I think he didn't get lift off his ankle like he usually does. But he was basically shuffling through all our options there at the end.”
If the Williams-Goss injury was simply an unlucky break, the jump ball down at the other end of the floor with 50 seconds remaining was the ultimate mistake ofhuman nature. After Kennedy Meeks came down with an offensive rebound, Gonzaga stripped it, with Silas Melson breaking toward the ball. “It was a chance to get the ball ... at the end of the day, I just wanted to come up with the ball,” Melson said in the locker room afterward about the desperation of his lunge toward the ground. Meeks beat him to the ball, and Melson grabbed it as well. However, Meeks’ hand was out of bounds as he was touching the ball, meaning it should have been Gonzaga ball. Instead, the referees called a jump ball with both players on the ground touching the basketball.
“I thought I stepped out,” Meeks admitted, to which I told him that he was indeed out of bounds. In the typically gregarious nature of his personality, Meeks joked that he “didn’t care” that he was out of bounds now that they have won the title and that the call wasn’t made, but went on to explain that “I just tried to get the rebound, he tapped it out of my hand, I tried to dive for it, he did the same.”
While the officiating was an issue throughout for both teams, this was the call that altered the course of the game most tangibly on a non-judgment decision. The referees missed Meeks’ hand being out of bounds. If they make the correct call, it goes over to Gonzaga down one with 50 seconds left. That’s a different game than the eventual result of the ensuing possession, where Isaiah Hicks made an incredibly difficult lay-up over Jonathan Williams to give the Heels a three-point lead with under 30 seconds. One moment entirely out of the players’ control created a serendipitous outcome for the Tar Heels, and a disastrous one for the Zags.
“Yeah, it’s heart-breaking,” Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd said after the game about the missed call. “Last year, we lost to Syracuse on a 10-second call that wasn’t a 10-second call. Is that the game or not? I don’t know. But we also beat Northwestern goaltending a ball through the rim with five minutes to go, you know? These are hard.”
These things tend to even out in the long run, as Lloyd alludes to by mentioning the Northwestern moment from three weeks ago in the team’s second-round game. He also noted the fact that North Carolina would have equally as many discussion points if they were on the other side of the shoe.
“I’m not discrediting North Carolina at all,” Lloyd said. “They had a ton to do with the game not going our way. But that is the breaks of the game. I’m sure that if the shoewould have been on the other foot, coach Williams would be saying ‘are you kidding me, Jonathan Williams banks in a 3 from the right wing,’ you know? So it’s just kind of how it goes.”
The final piece of this has to do with the officiating throughout the game. Throughout the season, college basketball teams have essentially been playing Russian Roulette with how games were called on a night-to-night basis. Some games, teams were allowed to really play. Other times, the referees blew the whistle so often that it would become a part of the head coach’s dreamsthat night.
During a national championship game, you’re supposed to have the best of both worlds. The best officials in the business strike a solid balance between making sure the kids decide a large portion of the action while also not allowing them to get too rambunctious and physical. Monday night, any contact at all was called for an infraction, leading to an eight-year national championship high in both fouls and free throws.
If the game is called differently, maybe star Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins doesn’t foul out in 14 minutes, or maybeMeeks plays more than 22 minutes. Maybe the course of the game is totally changed in a way that we can’t foresee.
Maybe in that alternate universe, Gonzaga is your 2017 national champion, the culmination of 20 years of one of the most remarkable rebuilding projects in college basketball history.
Maybe we’re talking about a freshman Most Outstanding Player for the second time in three years if Collins takes it down, or maybe we’re talking about how beneficial transfers can be because of the success of Williams-Goss and Williams.
But college basketball isn’t played with maybes or in a vacuum. Inherently flawed humans — both in terms of physical strength and mental acuity — play an integral role in the way basketball games are decided. It’s not simply the way teams match up on paper, or even match up in reality. Sometimes, strange, unexpected factors come up.
North Carolina might have gotten some breaks and been the beneficiary of the unexpected, but they took advantage every single time and weathered the storm.
That’s what champions do, and the Tar Heels have earned the right to be fitted for that moniker.