There is no major American sport more defined by its postseason than college basketball. In turn, the sport's champion takes on a larger role than most when it comes to how a particular season winds up being remembered. That can be a bit of a problem with a postseason format that lends itself to the potential of a team that hasn't been anywhere near one of the season's best ultimately claiming the sport's top prize.
Two years ago, Connecticut lost its final game of the regular season by 33 points and then was manhandled again a week later in the AAC Tournament championship game. The Huskies earned a No. 7 seed and trailed St. Joseph's by three with 43 seconds to play in their opening game of the Big Dance. A loss would have put to bed a completely forgettable season from an equally forgettable team. Instead, we're all going to remember Shabazz Napier and company forever.
The problem with Connecticut winning the 2014 national championship wasn't that the Huskies weren't the best team in the country, it's that they weren't one of the 15 best teams in the country. Every game since November, all the upsets and buzzer-beaters and storylines, it all wound up leading to this extremely flawed squad being the last one standing. Impossible-to-predict runs are going to happen every now and then in a sport set up this way, but it still couldn't help but make what had been an overwhelmingly fun and exciting season feel just a bit unsatisfying.
That wasn't an issue a year ago when Duke met Wisconsin in the 2014-15 finale, and it's not going to be an issue Monday night, as the final game of what has been yet another overwhelmingly entertaining ride figures to be another terrific representative of the beautiful journey. North Carolina and Villanova have been near the top of the title contenders conversation all season long. Each took care of business in one of the best conferences in all of the land, and each has looked like one of the two best teams in the NCAA Tournament since play began three weeks ago.
Monday night's finale from NRG Stadium has all the makings of a classic (this tournament is overdue for one). Here are the five most important things you should know before you take it in.
1. These have been the two best teams in the tournament
There's nothing flukey about this year's national championship game. Since round one, North Carolina and Villanova have consistently played the best basketball of any two teams in the Big Dance.
North Carolina has won all five of its tournament games by 14 points or more, and is the first team to reach the national title game without a single-digit win since Roy Williams' 2009 UNC squad achieved the feat in 2009. Villanova beat No. 1 overall seed Kansas by just five, but still has an average tournament margin of victory of 22.4 points per game, thanks in large part to its 44-point beatdown of Oklahoma on Saturday, which was the biggest blowout in the history of the Final Four. The 202 combined points that North Carolina and Villanova have beaten their 10 tournament opponents by represents the largest margin of victory in tournament history for teams in the title game.
Sure, "madness" represents a big chunk of the NCAA Tournament's appeal, but in the end, we all want to see the two best and most deserving teams left standing. Monday night will give us that.
2. In the last two weeks, Villanova has given the two most impressive offensive performances of the season
With the Wildcats desperately needing a Sweet Sixteen win over Miami to shed the "can't get it done in March" stigma that has annoyed everyone in Nova Nation so much, all they did was give the best overall offensive performance of the entire 2015-16 season.
That's not hyperbole or opinion either.
1.60 points per possession for Villanova. The best offensive game for any team the ENTIRE SEASON— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) March 25, 2016
For the record Villanova just scored 92 points in the second-slowest game of the tournament so far. That’ll do.— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) March 25, 2016
That's ... that's pretty good.
After beating Kansas at their own game in the Elite Eight, Nova wowed the world with its offensive prowess once again in the national semifinals. The Wildcats averaged 1.53 points per possession and shot 71.4 percent from the field, the second-best number in Final Four history. The only team to shoot better? The 1985 Villanova team that shot 78.6 percent against Georgetown in the national championship game.
3. North Carolina has a massive advantage inside
Daniel Ochefu is a fine front-court player, but he's the only thing Villanova has to counter Carolina's three-headed monster of Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks. Reserve big men Isaiah Hicks and Joel James have also both been stellar during UNC's dominant postseason run.
North Carolina has missed only 150 shots through the first five games of the NCAA Tournament, and has secured the offensive rebound on 75 of those misses. That's a scary thought for a Nova team that struggled to keep Oklahoma off the offensive glass even in the most lopsided game in Final Four history. The Sooners pulled down 19 offensive boards on Saturday night.
Keeping Carolina off the glass is a tall enough task, but how Nova chooses to matchup with the Tar Heels in the half-court is a different beast entirely. Ochefu can only guard one player, which means Jay Wright will have to decide early on whether he wants to gamble with having guards defend the other two UNC post presences, or give more minutes than usual to 6'8 reserve forward Darryl Reynolds.
4. Bart Simpson is riding with Villanova
Sunday night's chalkboard gag on The Simpsons let us know where Matt Groening and company stand with regard to their championship game rooting interests.
I'm not sure we'd lose everything, but "Big East sucks" and "wait 'til Nova chokes in March" hot takes would definitely be gone forever.
5. Villanova will pressure North Carolina, but won't try to slow them down
Some people have expressed a belief that Villanova will be doing everything in its power to keep North Carolina from playing at its trademark up-tempo pace. That's probably not going to happen.
Yes, the Wildcats average just 66 possessions per game, good for the 284th-lowest total in college basketball, but that's almost entirely based on how methodical their offense is. Defensively, Nova's possessions last just a little under 17 seconds, which is quicker than the national average.
Despite the fact that North Carolina turns the ball over on only 15.3 percent of its possessions (the 18th-best rate in Division I), Villanova will still put heavy pressure on Marcus Paige, Joel Berry and company. That pressure might force turnovers or it might lead to easy Tar Heel buckets, but it will undoubtedly speed the game up, which should make for an exciting television product.