BY JUSTIN THOMPSON (’17)
Aside from a few diehard Tar heels in North Carolina, the college basketball universe let out a collective sigh on Monday night. North Carolina’s victory over Gonzaga made it clear that the despite David’s best efforts, Goliath’s continue to dominate March Madness.
This year’s final four featured three teams with headline-worthy stories. South Carolina, a seven seed, plowed through second seeded Duke and busted brackets by advancing all the way to the Final Four. The play of criminally underrated scorer Sindarius Thornwell as well as the fiery sideline persona of former busboy turned coach, Frank Martin, made the Gamecocks fan favorites. Oregon lost their most dominant player, Chris Boucher, to a season ending ACL tear in the final game of the year. The loss of Boucher prompted many bracketeers, including myself, to predict them to make an early exit. The Ducks exceeded expectations by playing through their strengths; particularly ice-in-his-veins sharpshooter Tyler Dorsey, Canadian Dillon Brooks, and uber-athletic shot blocker Jordan Bell.
Gonzaga is a different story altogether. The Jesuit college in Spokane, Washington (not exactly an area synonymous with basketball prestige) has never won a national championship in any sport. Let me repeat that for all of us spoiled Buckeye fans. In 130 years of existence, Gonzaga hasn’t won a championship in any sport. Academic All-American and super versatile point guard Nigel Williams-Goss led the way for the Bulldogs and lanky big man Zach Collins came on strong near the end. My personal favorite player in the whole tournament was Przemek Karnowski (pronounced Shemek), a 7’1 three hundred pounder whose Gandalf-like beard and barrel chest made him a fan favorite. Quite possibly the best thing to come out of Poland since Copernicus, Karnowski closely resembles a nimble footed Andre the Giant wearing Air Jordan’s.
That leaves only North Carolina. Yep, the same North Carolina that has been to a record twenty Final Fours. A perennial baby-blue-blood basketball school. Forbes’s pick as the most valuable college basketball brand. Alma mater of former White Sox baseball legend and occasional basketball player Michael Jordan. Yes, that North Carolina. Gonzaga and South Carolina have never been to a national championship and Oregon was last there in 1939. North Carolina was in the big game last season. As much as Tar heel nation hates to admit it, they didn’t need this championship. Surely they wanted it, but they didn’t need it.
North Carolina lore includes legends such as Vince Carter (Vinsanity!), “Big Game” James Worthy, and most importantly they have the image and financial backing of Michael Jordan and his “Air Jordan” empire. Jordan transcends basketball. His reach extends into the fashion, media, and business sectors and he makes money by simply being MJ. Gonzaga on the other hand has John Stockton. That’s it. Stockton has more assists than anyone else in NBA history and is beloved among Utah Jazz fans. However, he isn’t exactly marketable like a Jordan or a Vince Carter. Stockton is very much a product of the team-first system implemented at Gonzaga, he is unapologetically fundamental and always made the “right” play on the court as opposed to the flashy play. Where Jordan invoked memories of the great Dr. J with his acrobatic style, Stockton dissected defenses much like Dr. Oz. Unfortunately, this style of play doesn’t sell T-shirts the way that North Carolina’s high flying approach does.
At its root, this year’s championship was about much more than pitting rival against rival. It was about old money vs. no money, fundamentals vs. flash, East vs. West, and nearly every other set of antonyms that you can think of. In the end, it is sad to see an upstart contender like Gonzaga who is overlooked every year come tournament time defeated by a team so cookie-cutter and forgettable as this year’s North Carolina squad. For diehard fans like me, seeing the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world rack up titles makes me believe, quite reluctantly, that for these few lucky teams, the ceiling might very well be the roof.