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The Best Heavyweight Fight of the NCAA Tournament So Far

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On Saturday night, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl and Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis squared off in the NCAA tournament’s version of a heavyweight fight. Arvydas’s kid won by TKO, and it wasn’t even close. Sabonis almost quadrupled Poeltl’s point total (19 to 5) and more than doubled his rebounds haul (10 to 4) in an 82-59 win for Gonzaga. If you hadn’t known anything about the two, you would have thought that Sabonis was the prospective top-five NBA draft pick and Poeltl was the late first-rounder. But going into the game, many projected the Utes big man to be a much higher pick than Sabonis.

Sabonis pushed Poeltl around the court all night on defense, beating the Austrian to his spots. That’s why Poeltl had only five field-goal attempts — he wasn’t used to catching the ball so far away from the basket. When big men battle for position, it’s more like wrestling than basketball. For the first time all season, someone took the fight to Poeltl. By the middle of the second half, he had his hands on his knees, while Sabonis looked like he could go another 10 rounds.

Poeltl didn’t fare any better guarding Sabonis. The Bulldogs big man scored in the paint and took Poeltl off the dribble on the perimeter. The knock on Sabonis is his outside shot, but he was making them on Saturday.

Both players had similar regular-season numbers, but Poeltl was more hyped coming into the tournament because he was coming from the Pac-12, while Sabonis was underrated coming out of the smaller West Coast Conference. But how strong was the Pac-12 this year, really? It sent only one team (Oregon) to the Sweet 16, same as the WCC. Sabonis was the best player Poeltl faced all season, and he wilted, putting up his worst game of 2016. That’s probably not a coincidence.

As I mentioned in Thursday’s newsletter, the tournament was going to be huge for Poeltl because it would finally test him against the best big men. The first time he went up against somebody in his weight class, he folded.

Sabonis vs. Poeltl felt a lot like Hakeem Olajuwon vs. David Robinson in the 1995 playoffs. Obviously, the stakes weren’t as high on Saturday, nor were the players as good, but it was the same dynamic: one guy with all the awards and all the hype getting roasted by the better player.

The bracket has opened up for Gonzaga. Its 2-seed (Michigan State) is already out, so the Bulldogs will face a 10-seed in Syracuse. Sabonis is the perfect weapon against the Orange’s famous 2–3 zone defense; the key to beating that system is a big man who can pass, and Sabonis is one of the best passing big men in the country. If Gonzaga advances past Syracuse, the Bulldogs will play either Virginia or Iowa State in the Elite Eight, and neither team really has an NBA-worthy big guy, much less someone of Poeltl’s caliber. This is Gonzaga’s best chance to make the Final Four under Mark Few, in large part because Sabonis is the coach’s best pro prospect since Adam Morrison.

DraftExpress has Sabonis as the no. 24 pick in the first round, but mocks at this stage are fluid. If Gonzaga makes it to Houston, he could go much higher. Domantas Sabonis is making the leap in real time. Savor it.

This piece originally appeared in the March 21, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.