GLENDALE, Ariz. — For most teams, a starting center writhing on the ground would send a shiver down fans’ spines. And indeed, when Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski went down after South Carolina’s Chris Silva’s inadvertent finger to the face turned into a painful poke in the eye with the score tied at 31 late in the first half, the entirety of Zag Nation undoubtedly held its breath.
After all, Karnowski is the linchpin of the Zags’ potent two-way attack. His teammates say as such. He’s a tough post threat on offense, a terrific passer that allows the team to play inside-out without worrying about double teamsand one of the top rim protectors in the country. Plus, he’s one of the unquestioned leaders of the team, and his struggles with injuries — including the back injury that allowed him to be a part of this roster — are well-documented anddisheartening.
But there would be no crumbling from the Zags. Karnowski’s sight eventually returned in his still-red right eye, and he joined the country’s most versatile frontcourt in dominating the Gamecocks in the Bulldogs’ 77-73 over South Carolina to clinch Gonzaga'sfirst-ever national championship berth where it’ll face off against another deep frontcourt in North Carolina.
“I've had some really, really tough teams,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “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. These guys are all of that. All of it.”
While Karnowski’s 12 points and five rebounds played a big role, Gonzaga has Zach Collins to thank for its win. The freshman big man helped show off the team's incredible depth by becoming just the third player to put up a double-double with at least five blocks in Final Four history, as he scored 14 points, grabbed 13 reboundsand swatted six shots in just 23 minutes.
“He told me before the game, he said, 'look, I wouldn't want to be playing against me today,'” guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “And coach says it all year that we just can't talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk. And when he told me that I looked at him and I said, 'all right, let's do it then.' For him to come out with a double-double with six blocks, he walked the walk.”
Collins walked the walk in a big way. The stat line is outrageous, but it might undersell his performance. Every single time the Zags needed a guy to make a play, Collins was there. There were the six blocks, but he affected countless other shots. It was Collins who seemingly came down with every essential rebound down the stretch. And most importantly, right after the Gamecocks had gone on a 16-0 run to take a brief lead in the second half, it was Collins who made his lone 3-pointer of the night, a line drive that hit the back of the rim and died as it fell through the basket.
Hey, when things are going well and you’re playing confidently, that stuff happens.
“I thought it was kind of late in the shot clock, and I felt my guy not come up with me,” Collins said about his run-breaking 3. “I knew I was going to be open, so I knew right when I decided to flash I was going to shoot it.”
Collins and Karnowski weren’t alone, though, as the Zags’ bigs outplayed the Gamecocks’ frontcourt to the tune of a 36-17 score advantage. The Gamecocks, who have made a living inside on drives throughout the NCAA Tournament, only made 13 of their 34 shot attempts at the rim. The Zags, who allow a stunningly low 39.8 opponent 2-point percentage, stood tall in the paint yet again as they have at the rim defensively all season.
“It’s been a sneaky little secret at Gonzaga since we’ve gotten Przemek,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Przemek’s been an elite rim protector every year he’s been in our program. He doesn’t do it with blocked shots, he does it with his body. Referees are encouraging you to jump, with that verticality, and he does a great job with that. Collins has really bought into that, and those other bigs too. We’re comfortable being more aggressive on the perimeter defensively, understanding we’re going to get beaten on some drives. But we do a good job vertically contesting the shot.”
While Williams-Goss was the team’s All-American point guard this year, it’s the frontcourt that’s been the biggest key to the team’s success. How a small Jesuit school on the eastern border of Washington ended up with the best frontcourt in the country involved a series of events that seemunable to be recreatedanywhere else. “Things kind of fell together for us,” Lloyd said in the locker room after the game about his team’s group of bigs, and that might be the understatement of the college basketball season.
— Karnowski was expected to graduate last year, but the aforementioned back injury forced him into a fifth year with a medical redshirt. He was not expected to be on the team.
— Collins was a McDonald’s All-American — the first to commit to Gonzaga from high school — recruited to start from Day 1, but he hasn’t due to the presence of the Polish big man. He’s the kind of player the Zags simply haven’t gotten in the past.
— The team’s other starting forward, Jonathan Williams III, was the best player on an SEC team that led them in points, rebounds and blocks before leaving to go to a mid-major league after seeing the Zags’ success with transfer bigs. It’s abnormal for a successful high-major big to move down in competition level.
— Finally, Killian Tillie was an elite French youth player, the type who plenty of European pro teams would have paid big money to see play for them. These type of guys typically don’t play college hoops, but after visiting America when his brother Kim played at Utah in the late 2000s, he decided he wanted the experience.
All four have played integral pieces in the march to the title game. Karnowski is averaging 10 points while playing terrific defense and being a great connector with his passing. Collins just sealed their fate to the title game with an historic performance in the Final Four as a rim protector and versatile scorer. Williams was the West Region’s most outstanding player after a 19-point, eight-rebound game against Xavier that showcased his elite athleticism and ability to stretch the floor. Finally, Tillie hit two clutch free throws in this one to seal it with two seconds left, plus closed the game against Northwestern in the tight game due to his overall solid, dependable game.
The group has a little bit of everything in its forward unit. But the craziest part is that it’s an entirely new unit from the Zags’ run to the Sweet 16in last year’s NCAA Tournament. NBA forwards Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis manned the starting spots, with Karnowski sitting out due to injury, Williams in the midst of a transfer yearand Collins and Tillie still playing youth basketball.
That new group of players meant it tooktime early in the season for the group to mesh together.
“We had a Baylor scrimmage early in the season and did really bad as a unit,” Williams said. “But after that, we came together and said, 'we have to play better together.' Day by day, practice by practice, we work out together almost every other night just to get a good feel for each other.”
Their cohesion off the floor has played a big role in their play on it.
“Off the court, the chemistry we had was natural from the start,” Collins said. “On the court, yeah (it took some time), in the preseason practices sometimes someone would pass and someone wouldn’t be there. But that off-court chemistry helped so much on court, not getting mad at each other when someone makes a mistake and just being patient with each other helped a lot.”
Karnowski will be gone next season, and Collins will have a decision to make in the days following the championship game about whether or not he wants to declare for the draft. There will be more turnover. But Williams and Tillie will return, and the Zags will reload the frontcourt with high-upside freshman athlete Rui Hachimura as well as Jacob Larsen, a Danish 7-footer that, like Karnowski, has tremendous feet, soft handsand loads of potential in the college game.
The program will reload its group of bigs next year on the back of Lloyd’s ability to spot talent in untraditional basketball markets and the coaching staff’s talent for developing prospects. But that’s getting ahead of things. The team still has a chance to make history for itself on Monday against a traditionally powerful frontcourt of North Carolina. Whereas the Tar Heels get by on the brute force of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicksand Tony Bradley, the Zags do it with a group that brings “all of it,” to quote Few.
That little bit of everything to pair with incredible talent is why they’re in position to cut down the nets on Monday night.