There are two 7-footers left in the NCAA tournament — and they both play for Gonzaga. Only a handful of teams in the country have a player as big as Przemek Karnowski (7-foot-1 and 300 pounds) and no other team can bring a big man as skilled and athletic as Zach Collins off the bench. If one gets in foul trouble or has to come out the game with an injury — which happened to Karnowski in the first half when he took a shot to the face — the other can step in without missing a beat. In Gonzaga’s 77–73 victory on Saturday, they played their two 7-footers together, and South Carolina didn’t have an answer for it.
Collins and Karnowski are a study in contrasts. Karnowski, a fifth-year senior, is a Goliath with a great feel for the game. What he lacks in speed he makes up for with nimble feet and an uncanny ability to thread passes through traffic. Collins, a freshman, is an incredible athlete for a player his size, capable of guarding on the perimeter and playing way above the rim.
On Saturday, Collins knocked down two jumpers (one from behind the 3-point line), which opened up the floor for Karnowski at the rim. Playing with a 300-pounder, meanwhile, frees him up from some of the banging in the paint. They were better than the sum of their parts on Saturday, covering for each other’s flaws and forming a 7-foot Voltron which put away a tough but undersized South Carolina team. The two combined for 27 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists, and 6 blocks on 12-of-22 shooting.
Few’s decision to play the two together put Frank Martin in a tough bind. Either he had to play his two big men together — sophomore Chris Silva and freshman Maik Kotsar — in lineups that struggled to space the floor and create shots in the half court, or he had to slide his star senior Sindarius Thornwell to power forward and have him guard someone more than half-a-foot taller. Martin tried to split the difference by going small and playing a zone, but that created a lot of open 3s for the Zags perimeter players, and they continued their hot shooting from their beatdown of Xavier in the Elite Eight. Gonzaga shot 9-of-19 (47.4 percent) from long-range, and four different players hit 3s. There were just too many players at too many spots on the floor for the Gamecocks to guard. Martin’s team had the no. 3 adjusted defense in the country according to KenPom, and Gonzaga scored 77 points on 48.3 percent shooting on Saturday.
It doesn’t matter how good a team’s big men are, though, if they can’t get the ball. Gonzaga has sent a long line of big men to the NBA — including Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer, Ronny Turiaf, and Robert Sacre — but they’ve never had guards like Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews. The Zags’ starting backcourt features two transfers from Power Five schools, and they have the size and athleticism to match up with NBA prospects on the perimeter like the Gamecocks’ two stars, Thornwell and PJ Dozier. Williams-Goss had a masterful all-around performance, with 23 points, six assists, and five rebounds on 9-of-16 shooting, while Mathews knocked in four huge 3s that prevented South Carolina from packing the paint and taking the Gonzaga big men out of the game.
Few has built a well-balanced team that can take whatever the defense gives them. If they have a weakness, it’s playing against teams who guard for 94 feet and prevent their big men from imposing their will on the game. They barely survived against West Virginia’s full-court press in the Sweet 16, and South Carolina got back in the game with a 16–0 second-half run on Saturday by extending their defense. If Gonzaga can take care of the ball and keep the game in the half court, neither Oregon nor North Carolina has the size to match up with them. It’s not just Karnowski and Collins. Johnathan Williams, their starting junior power forward, is a hyperathletic 6-foot-9 big man who can play out on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. Killian Tillie, their fourth big man, is getting looked at by NBA scouts despite averaging only 12.4 minutes a game as a freshman.
In South Carolina’s first four games in the tournament, none of their opponents could take advantage of their smaller lineups when Thornwell played at power forward. At 6-foot-5 and 211 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Thornwell is a rock who is almost impossible to dislodge in the post and can bang with much bigger defenders. However, there’s not much even he could do against a pair of 7-footers. There aren’t many teams in the NBA with as much size and skill as Gonzaga, much less in the NCAA. Gonzaga is still a newcomer to the ranks of national powers, but they play old-school basketball when they need to.
Few turned Gonzaga into an elite program by developing an international pipeline that brought in players like Karnowski, a native of Poland. Collins, who hails from Las Vegas, is the first McDonald’s All American to sign with Few out of high school, and the mixture of the old and the new made the difference on Saturday. Gonzaga will probably never be able to recruit at the level of schools like Duke and Kentucky, but they have found a formula that allows them to compete with anyone. While they won’t have as many athletes as whomever they play on Monday, they will be the bigger team. That might be enough to get them their first national title.