Size looms large in NCAA title game between North Carolina, Gonzaga

Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski (24) is swarmed by South Carolina’s Chris Silva (30) and Rakym Felder (far right) in the first half of Gonzaga’s Final Four win at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale. (Photo by Blake Benard/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE — When Roy Williams was in his first season as a Division I head coach with Kansas in 1988, he probably wouldn’t have been surprised to see a matchup of two big men who would combine to total nearly 600 pounds in the low post.

Now, in the days of four-guard offenses and fast-paced play, it’s a rarity. But that’s the challenge at hand for Williams, now the coach at North Carolina, as he leads his team into Monday’s national championship game against Gonzaga at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin, largely because they boast a pair of post presences. One is Kennedy Meeks, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound center. The latter, 6-foot-9, 235-pound power forward Isaiah Hicks.

The pair’s dominance down low this season has helped the Tar Heels challenge the new wave of college small-ball lineups.

Monday, they’ll be looking up at their competition, literally, with a pair of seven-footers on the other end. Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins, who stands seven feet tall and weighs in at 235 pounds, may be the lone one-and-done candidate left standing in the NCAA Tournament, based on a review of several mock drafts. But the true size inside is with 7-foot-1, 300-pound fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski.

“(Karnowski)’s a big fellow,” Williams said Sunday. “I just shook his hand a few minutes ago, and he just engulfed mine and I’ve been around some big guys before, but he’s a big dude. Really gifted, really gifted in how he passes the ball, too.”

The Collins and Karnowski pairing combined for 27 points and 18 rebounds in Saturday’s 77-73 Final Four win over South Carolina and has been key for a unit that ranks 11th in the nation in rebounding margin and seventh overall in scoring defense. There were few teams in the West Coast Conference who could match up with the Bulldogs’ size.

Karnowski averaged 12.3 points and 5.8 boards per game this season on his way to a first team All-WCC selection. Despite not starting a game, Collins earned second team All-WCC honors after averaging 10 points and 5.9 rebounds a night.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Monday’s contest is refreshing in that Karnowski will have a straight-up matchup throughout the game, unlike what he often faces with jump-shooting big men who open the floor with their spacing and quickness during conference play.

“It’s harder to game plan and deal with our league when the (center) can pick and pop and shoot 3s, and the (power forward) obviously can do the same thing,” Few said. “And the teams are pretty diabolical about the type of offenses and things they run.”

Crashing the glass has been an emphasis for North Carolina all season, and that was no different in Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Oregon. While the Ducks may have matched them with 43 rebounds, it was a pair of offensive rebounds by the Tar Heels in the closing seconds that secured the victory.

Meeks was the biggest hero on Saturday for North Carolina, matching a career-high with 25 points and adding 14 rebounds — including the final offensive rebound that clinched it.

“What had to happen was other guys had to more than balance them out, and Kennedy really did some great things, great things,” Williams said.

Meeks has gone on a tear during the NCAA Tournament, but Williams stressed that his team must have balance in order to have success Monday. That means the Tar Heels need an improvement down low from Hicks. The power forward hasn’t scored in double digits since the opening round of the tournament. Saturday he shot 1-for-12, scoring just two points to go with only three rebounds.

“It sort of snowballed on him,” Williams said. “It’s a tough time for him as an individual. I keep trying to tell him I believe in him, I trust him. I’m going to keep putting you out there. Said many times I’m not the smartest, but I’m not the dumbest guy. So if I keep putting you out there I must have more confidence in you than you have in yourself.”

While Hicks has struggled for the Tar Heels, Collins has emerged as a true freshman for the Bulldogs and broke out Saturday, totaling 14 points and a career-high 13 rebounds off the bench. His play this season has been critical to spell Karnowski off the bench, providing a unique tandem for large players with various skill sets.

Few said he would love to incorporate more time with Karnowski and Collins on the floor at the same time, provided the two can avoid foul trouble.

“I think we’re a great duo,” Karnowski said. “He has some abilities that I don’t really have. I’m probably a little bit stronger than him, but he is just so long and can contest and alter so many shots on the defensive end. I think we understand each other really well on the floor.”

While Hicks and Collins will play supporting roles for their respective teams, the main spotlight shines on the two large men who combine for 560 pounds on the block.

Karnowski and Meeks could be the matchup that divides the two teams that appear to be the same on paper in depth, size and skill on the outside. For the first time, Few said, the two teams have found their match. It’s a matter of who between the two big men has the upper hand.

“I’m interested to see the head-to-head early on, because some big guys, the first time they play against Przemek it’s a little eye-opening,” Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd said.

Both Karnowski and Meeks are excited for the matchup and anxious for the massive contact destined to happen down low.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of big bodies hitting around,” Karnowski said. “He’s a big guy like me. He likes to play it back to the basket a lot. So obviously I’ll try to stop him from going to his moves.”

Added Meeks: “I like playing physical, honestly.”