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UNC's offensive rebounding has the Tar Heels 40 minutes from Final Four redemption

The Heels got this far by cleaning up their own misses. It’s their clearest path to victory against Gonzaga, too.

North Carolina’s best hope to beat Gonzaga in college basketball’s national championship game on Monday is to do exactly what it’s done to teams all season and what it just did to Oregon in a national semifinal.

The Tar Heels are the sport’s best offensive rebounding team. When they miss shots, they recoup the ball about 42 percent of the time. They’re a couple percentage points ahead of everybody else, and they notched 16 offensive boards against Oregon on Saturday. Two of those came in the final five seconds, both off missed UNC free throws, and sealed the game. The Heels had 19 second-chance points in a game they won 77-76. As a result, they’re 40 minutes from putting last season’s title-game loss to Villanova in the ground.

The primary engine here is Kennedy Meeks, UNC’s 6’10 senior center. Meeks had the game of his basketball life on Saturday, with 25 points and 14 rebounds. He’s arguably the best offensive rebounder of the thousands of basketball players in Division I. Of UNC’s 304 O-boards this year, Meeks has snatched up 148. He had eight of the team’s 16 against the Ducks. Tony Bradley and Isaiah Hicks are pretty good at this, too, but Meeks is point A, B, and C in any discussion of why UNC gets so many of these.

North Carolina didn’t hit a shot from the field in the last 5:53 against Oregon. The Heels had two missed free throws that should’ve sent the Ducks the other way, only needing a two-pointer to win at the buzzer. They didn’t get that far either time, because Theo Pinson and Meeks, respectively, beat them to the ball.

On the first of those late rebounds, Oregon forward Jordan Bell just didn’t box out. Maybe he thought the Heels would just concede the rebound and get back to defend, as is standard practice for lots of teams shooting end-of-clock foul shots. You don’t want to give up points on the fast break. But UNC isn’t lots of teams.

Playing against the Heels seems like it’d be demoralizing.

Tenacious offensive rebounding is a major feature of Roy Williams teams.

UNC’s coach is in his ninth Final Four, 40 great minutes from his third national title. Williams has been at this since he took over at Kansas in 1988. For every year of his career that I can track, he’s fielded an elite offensive rebounding team. There hasn’t been one exception to this rule since 2001-02, the first year for which college hoops analytics genius Ken Pomeroy tracks offensive rebound percentage.

In 2010-11, UNC was 27th in the country in that stat, out of nearly 350 Division I teams. That’s the worst offensive rebounding team Williams has had in the last 16 years. He’s had the No. 1 team twice and a top-five offensive rebounding squad seven times. The last three UNC teams have all placed in the top five, going from fifth to third to first.

Some of that’s recruiting. UNC signs four- and five-star players, and they have a certain type of size, strength, and jump that isn’t teachable. Some of it’s definitely scheme, though, like instructing players not to give up on their teammates’ shots even if it makes the defense vulnerable to transition baskets. This is not a huge problem for UNC, as it happens, because the Heels succeed in grabbing boards.

If UNC beats Gonzaga on Monday, offensive rebounds will be a key.

The Bulldogs are fine but not great, at preventing such things. They allow O-boards on about 26 percent of opposing misses, which is a few points better than the 29-percent national average and a top-50 mark. But there’s more to the story.

Against teams from the power conferences, which tend to have more athletes than WCC foes, Gonzaga’s struggled to defend its glass. Iowa State, Florida, Arizona, West Virginia, and Washington have all hurt Gonzaga badly with offensive rebounds. In January, Portland — the Pilots, not the Trailblazers — scooped up 21 offensive rebounds against Gonzaga in one game. The Zags are obviously vulnerable there.

I think Gonzaga’s the best team in the country and will beat North Carolina. But it requires almost no imagination to see Meeks wreaking havoc on Gonzaga’s boards and returning the national title to Chapel Hill for the first time since 2009.