Roy Williams has been here before. Just last year, in fact. And five times altogether, playing for the NCAA championship. Twice he got to celebrate winning the final game of the season with the Tar Heels, pushing their total to five tournament titles.
For Mark Few and Gonzaga, this is all new. Just getting to the Final Four was a first, and now they are one victory from lifting the trophy.
If it came down to history, tradition and experience, North Carolina would run away with Monday’s NCAA championship game. If only it were that easy for the Tar Heels.
“You know, on game night, kids got to play. That’s the bottom line,” Williams said Saturday night after the Tar Heels beat Oregon 77-76. “I’ve never won a game from the bench. I may have lost some, but I know I’ve never won one.”
The 66-year-old Williams called Few one of his best friends in coaching and said he was stressed out hoping that his poker buddy would finally break through and reach the Final Four this year.
The last time they played each other in the NCAA Tournament was 2009, when the Tar Heels eliminated the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16. Since the Zags graduated from upstart to national power, there have been lots of early exits in the tournament.
Few has been the coach of Gonzaga for 18 seasons and never once have the Zags missed the NCAA Tournament. He is 503-112 at Gonzaga, but there were always questions about whether the program was good enough to really be considered among the best in the country.
Those should be gone now and if there are any lingering doubters, the Bulldogs can take care of that on Monday by beating one of the bluest of college basketball’s blue bloods. This is North Carolina’s record 20th Final Four.
“I know Gonzaga, they don’t have the history that we do. But they’ve only lost one game this year. They’re a pretty good team,” North Carolina guard Joel Berry II said. “While the history matters to show how great your program is, at the same time it doesn’t because you got to play that game on Monday.”
For years Williams was the coach who couldn’t win the big one. During his time at Kansas, Williams made it to the Final Four four times but never won one. He left for North Carolina, his alma mater where he played and worked as an assistant for Dean Smith.
Williams shook that label in his second season at North Carolina, winning it all in 2004-05 and then came back with another title in 2008-09. A gut-wrenching loss to Villanova in a championship game classic last year denied Williams a third career title. Now he will get another chance to pass his mentor, Smith (who won two) and become just the sixth coach with at least three NCAA championships on his resume.
“I’m coaching a new group of kids,” Williams said. “And making it back to the national championship game is amazing. Oh, you did that last year? Well, that still makes it even more amazing kind of thing.”
Few joked earlier in the tournament about not worrying about having a monkey on his back. He has, like Williams, always gone out of his way to make it about his players – and this season he has some really great players such as Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski.
“I’ve had some really, really tough teams. I’ve had some really close teams. I’ve had some teams that have been crazy efficient on the offensive end and ones that have been pretty darned good on the defensive end that probably didn’t get credit for it,” Few said. “These guys are all of that. All of it.”
The matchup is set: The Hall of Fame coach with a chance to move into company that includes the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and John Wooden against the future Hall of Famer looking to add the only thing missing on his resume.
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.