North Carolina vs. Gonzaga is the game we all wanted to see

Will UNC avenge last year's heartbreak with title? (2:00)

Jay Williams, Tom Crean, Seth Greenberg and Jay Bilas make their picks for the national title game. (2:00)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- OK, it's not Duke vs. Kentucky. This is even more appetizing.

It's largely the same Tar Heels team that was sobbing uncontrollably in the locker room a year ago at this time after watching Kris Jenkins drain perhaps the most memorable shot in national title game history, a buzzer-beater that saw Villanova -- not North Carolina -- cutting down the nets.

It's a Gonzaga program that has long been criticized for playing in a lackluster conference, in the wee hours of the morning for those on the East Coast, and one that has been crushed for not being able to advance to the sport's final weekend.

North Carolina vs. Gonzaga on Monday night in the national championship game.

Sign. Me. Up.

No one could have predicted this matchup a few years ago.

Not when Roy Williams and his staff were dealing with the NCAA investigation into fraudulent classes that hampered the Tar Heels' ability to land elite-level players. North Carolina fans have watched for the past few years as Kentucky's John Calipari and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski have cleaned up in the recruiting game, something that UNC was accustomed to doing not all that long ago.

"I don't think there's one second of that thing that's been a blessing," Williams said. "People have tested my credibility, and I haven't appreciated that. It's been used against us in recruiting."

"It keeps giving us ammo," North Carolina forward Theo Pinson added. "It makes us want to get here again and again."

This UNC team has managed to thrive with the one-and-dones, based instead primarily on chemistry, balance and four-year guys. While Cal and Coach K have both been spectators the past two Aprils, Williams has still been working.

Ask Williams, though, about the loss to Villanova, and he'll make certain to tell you it was the most difficult of his career. Not just for him, but for seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, and for all those who are still in Chapel Hill: Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Pinson.

Other than Hicks, none of those guys have been able to watch last year's title game. It hurts that much. However, they can't escape Jenkins' heroic shot, seeing it on SportsCenter and even on a billboard while walking down the streets of New York a few weeks back during the ACC tournament.

"It motivates me," Meeks said. "But I don't want to watch it."

Now everyone will have to tune in to see if this group is able to erase the demons, or whether it'll be a second straight appearance in the national title game without hanging a sixth banner in Chapel Hill.

People love drama.

This game will have it -- redemption, a second chance, possibly more heartache from one of the bluest of bluebloods.

On the flip side, the Gonzaga haters are long gone, replaced by a bunch of Johnnies-come-lately that have jumped on the Gonzaga bandwagon as the boys from Spokane have marched into April.

Mark Few wasn't sure what he had. His top two players, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, were gone. So was a third starter, Eric McClellan. Przemek Karnowski was shut down after only five games a season ago and there were questions about whether he would ever wear a Gonzaga uniform again.

"I think we have a chance to be pretty good," Few told me back in October. "But I just don't know much about this team."

The only surefire returning players were Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, a duo that combined for a whopping 16.7 points per game a year ago. Few had a pair of transfers -- Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams -- eligible after sitting out last season. He added Cal grad transfer Jordan Mathews in the summer. Karnowski opted to finish his college career instead of heading overseas. Still, this wasn't the team that most pegged to shut up the skeptics.

North Carolina is 40 minutes away from redemption. Gonzaga is 40 away from history.

The tiny Jesuit school made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 1995. Dan Monson replaced Dan Fitzgerald two years later. In 1999, after a Sweet 16 appearance, Monson bolted for Minnesota. Few, an assistant under Monson was elevated to the top job. It has been a ridiculous string of 18 consecutive NCAA tournament trips since he took over.

But all the praise shifted, and it became about what Gonzaga couldn't do rather than about its once-unfathomable accomplishments.

The Sweet 16 trips were nice and all for the Bulldogs. So were the Elite Eight appearances in 1999 and 2015. But what about the Final Four? The critics lined up: The WCC didn't prepare them for March. They weren't mentally tough enough to win four straight games. Few insisted the talk didn't bother him, but those close to him maintain the constant questions -- and criticism -- wore on him.

"We've heard everything this year," Williams-Goss said. "We've heard we haven't played tight games, that we're not tough. We've heard everything."

Now, they hear whether they have enough to knock off a North Carolina team that has been on a mission for the past 12 months.

But Williams-Goss and his Gonzaga teammates weren't content just to get here. The players have heard the naysayers and have thrived by winning 37 of 38 games this season heading into Monday night's showdown with two of the sport's biggest and most recognizable names.

This isn't David vs. Goliath. Gonzaga has as many potential first-round NBA picks on its roster as North Carolina. No one with a clue refers to the program as a "mid-major" these days, not with a hefty budget that includes charter flights just about everywhere.

This is a matchup of the two best teams in the country.

And we get it on the final night of the season.