It is often said that guards win in March. And while that sentiment almost always rings true, for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, it is the talented center duo of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins that sets the West Coast Conference Champions apart.
Karnowski is listed at 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds. He is truly massive, and he is very much a throwback post player. About two-thirds of his shots come at the rim, and the remaining shots are mostly short jumpers or hook shots; he likes to catch the ball on the block and can finish with either hand. A native of Poland, Karnowski is now a fifth-year senior after playing in just five games last year due to a back injury and earning a medical hardship waiver. When teams come to double-team him, as Northwestern has done throughout the season against bigs such as Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Purdue’s Isaac Haas and Wake Forest’s John Collins, he is an able and willing passer.
“Yeah, I think it might be the best thing he does, as well as he scores,” Chris Collins said. “He's a very tough matchup. His size. His feel. His ability to score. You're going to have to change up your looks on him a little bit and try to get him out of his rhythm the best you can. And hopefully also that he doesn't get your whole team in foul trouble with his power down there.”
Before you can double, though, you have to have good initial defense that forces post players away from their spots.
“Like you do all year, try to do your work early, make it tough for him to catch it. If he’s going to catch it, make him catch it where he doesn’t really want to catch it further off of the block,” Barret Benson said.
One of the ways Northwestern could try to counter Karnowski’s impact in the block is getting out in transition, a sort of double-edged sword against a team that likes to run with the ball in its hands. Gonzaga averages just 15.7 seconds per possession offensively, 34th-fastest in Division I, but the Bulldogs also spend 18.3 seconds per possession on defense, which ranks among the slowest in the nation at 333rd.
“Because he’s so big in size, I feel like if we run him up and down the court hopefully we’ll get him tired so he’ll need more breaks and plays fewer minutes, so that’s what I’m kinda hoping for,” Gavin Skelly said. “And Dererk’s very well in shape, so if Dererk can run him up and down the floor and get him tired, I think that goes to our benefit.”
The issue is once Karnowski does sit, though — he averages just 22.9 minutes per game and played just 17 in the Round of 64 win over South Dakota State — Gonzaga brings in freshman Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman who many consider the team’s best NBA prospect, perhaps as early as after the end of this season. Against South Dakota State, Collins played 21 minutes and helped the Zags pull ahead with an efficient 10 points on just five shots while also pulling down six rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. He also leads the team in blocks and added three more against the Jackrabbits.
“That's what we expect out of him,” Gonzaga guard Silas Melson said. “All year long he's been coming off the bench and giving us a spark, whether it's blocking shots, rebounding. He's really athletic. He brings different aspects to the game some starters might not be able to do.” Head coach Mark Few added “it’s like having another starter.”
Like Karnowski, Collins does much of his work around the basket, shooting over 70 percent of his shots from that area, but he has shown the ability to stretch the floor, too, shooting 54.5 percent on two-point jumpers and 45 percent from three, albeit with a small sample size from downtown. That all rounds out to an absurd effective field goal percent of 67.7, best on the team.
“If I were a McDonald’s All-American, I feel like I’d be very close to him for sure,” Skelly said with a laugh. “On a real note, he’s really good and really versatile, and so I think that we need to get the ball out of his hands.”
The problem with playing against bigs who are so skilled is not only dealing with the task of limiting them, but also being active and alert when they do pass the ball out to the perimeter, especially out of double-teams.
“They’ve seen every type of post coverage this season, so it’s gonna be important that we do a lot of scrambling and talking out of our post coverages,” Vic Law Jr. said. Scottie Lindsey added that the Wildcats will need to have active hands and get into passing lanes to disrupt the rhythm jump shots Gonzaga’s guards have gotten all season.
“I feel like our wings are pretty long. We gotta try to deflect passes and just make it hard on some of the posts — have our presence felt in the post and outside.”
After the victory against Vanderbilt, Northwestern took a few hours off to celebrate and relax with family, friends and teammates, but the Wildcats reconvened at 9:30 p.m. Thursday to watch film. And while the team has fewer than 48 hours to prepare specifically for the West’s No. 1 seed, it’s had an entire conference season’s worth of experience against talented Big Ten post players. Purdue, with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, comes to mind.
“I think it’s gonna be huge for us, because the Big Ten definitely has some of the best big men in the country, and we’re gonna use that experience that we went through against Purdue and hopefully defend a little bit better this game,” Lindsey said.
It’s true that guard play often wins in March — and make no mistake, Gonzaga has plenty of it — but in order to stop a very talented and versatile Gonzaga attack, the Wildcats will have to limit two outstanding post players and all of the issues they present.