Northwestern won its first-ever NCAA Tournament game! The win over Vanderbilt was a game for the ages, but the Wildcats now have their sights set on top-seeded Gonzaga. We’re talking Wildcats versus Zags with Peter Woodburn of The Slipper Still Fits.
Inside NU: It seems like people throw this idea around every year, but is this really the best Gonzaga team Mark Few has ever had?
Peter Woodburn: Short answer: yes, it really is. Long answer: yes, it really is, and here are the reasons why. Gonzaga often times has a lot of talented players that exist in that gray area of fantastic college players but not quite great NBA players (in short athletic guys). This year, for the first time, that is different. The Gonzaga guards are big, and they are quick. Przemek Karnowski is a monstrosity down low, and Zach Collins will be in the NBA within a year or two. Finally, the Zags are able to balance their overall talent with that intangible athletic ability, and that allows them to compete with the rest of the top teams in the nation. On top of that, this is the most balanced squad the Zags have ever had. On paper, the starting five has no holes. The first three guys off the bench in Silas Melson, Zach Collins, and Killian Tillie could very well start for most D-I squads out there. Athleticism, balance, and depth are the keys. Most Gonzaga squads have had two of the three and this is the first one that has had all threes.
INU: BYU handed Gonzaga its only loss of the year. What was it that BYU did that gave the Zags trouble?
PW: Woof this game was hard one hard to process. BYU has one of the best big men in the game in Eric Mika, and they were able to remove Przemek Karnowski as a factor for much of the game. You add in Gonzaga's struggles from long range (which manifested on Thursday) and this aberration of horrendous free throw shooting (which also manifested on Thursday), and BYU was able to steal one at home on Senior Night. Also, BYU did what BYU does, which is hit these insane shots that no coach would think anyone should shoot. I'm not saying by any means the win was a fluke, but a lot went right for BYU to pull off the upset, and a lot of that fell on Gonzaga not executing how they had the entire rest of the year.
INU: Who is the X-factor for Gonzaga? If he plays well, this team is tough to beat, and if he struggles the team will too?
PW: I think the main x-factor for Gonzaga is the center, Przemek Karnowski. If he is on, his offensive game makes Gonzaga incredibly hard to deal with. Outside of the fact that he is a 7'1, 300-plus pound block of a human being, Karnowski is an old school post player. He is patient, has excellent footwork, and most importantly is able to burn opponents with his vision. There isn't a better passing big man in the game.
And right there is just his offensive production. Karnowski is a force in the paint. He is surprisingly nimble, and although he doesn't block a lot of shots, he alters a lot of drives. If Karnowski is in the game, hitting his shots, and staying out of foul trouble, Gonzaga is hard to beat.
INU: Nigel Williams-Goss vs. Bryant McIntosh should be an exciting matchup at the point guard spot. What are Williams-Goss's strengths and weaknesses as a player?
PW: Williams-Goss is one of the toughest guards in the country. He is getting all of these late-season award nominations for good reason. He has fantastic court vision, rarely turns the ball over, and has this little drive to the lane floater that will make you either cry tears of happiness if you are a Gonzaga fan, or tear your hair out if you are the opposition. That said, the man isn't superhuman or anything. He isn't the best outside threat, and he isn't the strongest defender, but neither of those two qualities matter. The Gonzaga backcourt is able to supplement his weaknesses with other players, and that has allowed Williams-Goss to shine. If the game is close, the ball will be in his hands, and as the season has shown this season, Gonzaga tends to win those scenarios.
INU: Just how good are Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins?
PW: For the record, Przemek Karnowski is my favorite person in life, and he should be your favorite person as well. His favorite pro team is chicken. But mainly, his return from back surgery last season has been a revelation. Karnowski has sound footwork and will never wow you with his final line, but he will make his presence known on both the offensive and defensive end. He wears opponents out on the post, and he alters shots underneath the hoop. He is without a doubt one of the best all around centers in the college game right now.
Zach Collins, on the other hand, will wow you a little bit. He is a freshman, so he is a bit rough around the edges. But the amount of enthusiasm and subsequent production this kid has is absolutely amazing for the limited minutes he plays. Collins can run the floor much better than Karnowski, and although he doesn't have as much of floor smarts, he makes it up for a relentless drive to score. On the defensive end, he is much quicker and longer than Karnowski, and that makes him for a better blocker off the weak side. That said, he is a freshman who is still prone to freshman mistakes (those painful fouls), so he sometimes takes himself out of the game. Either way, Gonzaga is able to throw both at opposing teams, and that is a nightmare to deal with because both players play the same position in completely different styles.
INU: Prediction time. Who wins Saturday and why?
PW: Sorry Northwestern, but we are the original Slipper Still Fits. You've had a great run this season, but the Zags are just too tight of a team to falter quite yet. Gonzaga looked like an overwhelmed sewage treatment plant in the first half of their game against the No. 16 South Dakota State. But in the second half, they looked every bit the team that has made them the No. 1 ranked squad by Ken Pomeroy for a good portion of the season. Zags are going to take this one by a decent, perhaps healthy, margin.
Gonzaga 75, Northwestern 65