Mark Few and Roy Williams are good friends coaching powerhouse programs separated by roughly 2,000 miles.
They call and text each other. They hang out at Nike events. The coaches and their staffs once spent a few early morning hours gambling at a Tunica, Mississippi, casino a few days before North Carolina thumped Gonzaga in the 2009 Sweet 16.
Their Tunica recollections were the laugh-out-loud highlight of press conferences at the 2017 Final Four that ended with North Carolina edging Gonzaga 71-65 in the championship game.
A more recent encounter created Gonzaga’s opportunity to face the Tar Heels for arguably the most anticipated home game in GU history. Both teams participated in the 2017 PK80 in Portland, a 16-team birthday bash for Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
At a social event prior to the tournament, Williams and Few were chatting when Williams suggested a home-and-home series. Few was on board immediately.
“The next day Mark told me, ‘Hey, I just talked to Roy last night and he wants to go home and home,’ ” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “I said, ‘Done, let’s make it happen.’ ”
It’s happening Wednesday at the McCarthey Athletic Center, the return date from UNC’s 103-90 win over visiting Gonzaga last season.
“We just talked about it and (Williams) was gracious enough to do it,” Few said. “These games are great for college basketball. We’re doing a lot of things where we’re playing on neutral courts – which isn’t horrible – but these big-time national-caliber games also need to be played on home floors with these great crowds, and you see the kind of effort the players make.”
The matchup lost some star power with UNC point guard Cole Anthony sidelined 4-6 weeks with a partially torn meniscus. The likely one-and-done freshman had an arthroscopic procedure Monday, the ACC school announced.
Starting wing Leaky Black, who also serves as a backup point guard, missed Sunday’s loss to Wofford with a sprained foot. He’s listed as questionable. K.J. Smith, a former walk-on, replaced Anthony as the starting point.
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“They’re Carolina and they have high-level athletes, McDonald’s All-Americans, that they’re going to put on the floor,” Gonzaga wing Corey Kispert said. “Coach Few said they’re kind of a wounded animal and their backs are against the wall. We’re going to expect nothing but their greatest level of intensity, fight and energy. This would be a big win to turn their season around. We’re not going to take anything lightly.”
Facing North Carolina on the Zags’ home court is a big deal for GU’s program, fan base and players, even ones born outside the U.S.
“I knew about UNC before Gonzaga because of (Michael) Jordan and all that,” said Zags forward Killian Tillie, a native of France. “They don’t really know much in France about college basketball, they just know the best schools.”
“North Carolina coming to the little town of Spokane, I won’t believe it until I see it,” Frenchman Joel Ayayi said. “That’s the type of name you hear all over the world. Great school, great history, lot of great players.
“It’s going to be an awesome opportunity for all the people in Spokane and the people who have built this program. North Carolina coming to Spokane, nobody would have even thought about it 20 years ago. We’re the lucky ones that are going to be able to play.”
The Tar Heels’ offensive numbers aren’t pretty. They’ve been limited to 49, 47 and 64 points in the last three games. The last time the Tar Heels were held below 70 in three straight games was during the 2014 season.
UNC’s field-goal percentage (39.8%) is its lowest since the 1957-58 season. UNC has never had such a low 3-point percentage (28.7%).
Both teams are battling injuries. Tillie is optimistic he’ll play despite suffering a sprained ankle Saturday. The outlook probably isn’t as positive for freshman forward Anton Watson. His left shoulder popped out of place a few times against Arizona, one month after his shoulder subluxation against Texas A&M.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Few said after Saturday’s win. “We have to rest up and rehab up and see if we can get ready to go at it again.”
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