Gonzaga and Duke will meet in the South Regional final for a chance to go to the Final Four. In some ways, the matchup represents two very different, yet similar teams. Duke is former champion steeped in tradition seeking yet another Final Four berth while Gonzaga searches for an elusive appearance on college basketball’s biggest stage to cement itself among the best.
Both teams like to get up and down and score, so expect an entertaining game. Many will pick Duke thanks to the Blue Devil’s slightly higher seed and the fact that they don’t really respect Gonzaga. Most basketball fans won’t admit to disrespecting the Zags, but there is a level of disbelief that continues to follow Gonzaga.
Even after the program reached the Elite Eight. Yes, that’s right, the Elite Eight, pundits are still doubting the Zags. Sure, GU didn’t exactly knockout #1 seeds in the tournament, but that doesn’t mean they should be knocked for reaching this point for the first time since 1999. It’s almost like taking the easy way out and forming an opinion without watching Gonzaga enough to realize that yes, they are in fact really good and can beat anyone. They even have the size to challenge and compete with Kentucky.
After the Zags’ Przemek Karnowski-led frontline destroyed their UCLA counterparts, the Zags will face Duke in Houston on Sunday. Some will tell you otherwise, but GU actually matches up well with the Blue Devils.
The South’s top-seeded team feature three extremely talented freshman in Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow. Outside of the trio and Quinn Cook, Coach K has exactly zero players averaging double-figures. Duke has depth issues, but the team is generally able to overcome them thanks to their stars, especially Okafor. The Blue Devils have Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson, but other than that there is a definite dearth of size. Additionally, neither are even close to being in the same discussion as Okafor offensively. Winslow was slid to the four next to Okafor at center to help combat this. While Winslow will likely be tasked with slowing down Kyle Wiltjer, Okafor will have issues with Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis on both ends of the floor.
The beauty of Gonzaga’s frontline is that they not only features a rotation of bigs, but that those bigs can beat you in different ways. Wiltjer is the stretch four who can score from any spot on the floor while Sabonis is the rare freshman with an extremely polished offensive, low-post game. He also brings energy, size and rebounding to the team when he enters the game. Karnowski is a different matchup entirely. The 7’1” center is the definition of an immovable object in the lane with soft hands and potent array of hook shots.
With all three at his disposal, Mark Few relies on a rotation, which was on full display against UCLA as the Zags’ coach constantly subbed the post players in and out in order to keep them fresh. With Duke expected to heavily rely on Okafor, tiring him out will be key. This won’t be hard with the rotation and number of screens the Zags tend to set.
Gonzaga’s opponents also have a tendency to pile up fouls quickly, often leaving the Zags in the bonus for long stretches of the game. Most of this has to do with post players trying to grapple with the “mountain masquerading as a man” known as Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski’s size also provides him the opportunity to shut down Okafor on the defensive end. Simply put, Karnowski is a big dude and despite his offensive gifts, Okafor will have trouble scoring on him.
Getting Okafor gassed and/or in foul trouble will give the Zags a leg up in the game. It will also expose the Blue Devils lack of depth. In Duke’s last two tournament games they have played one exactly one player more than 10 minutes, and that was Jefferson who averages 6.6 points per game.
Outside of the starting five for GU, Sabonis essentially plays “starter minutes” off the bench while Kyle Dranginis’ minute totals approach “starter” territory. If it turns into a game of depth, the Zags will have the upper hand.
There will be offensive fireworks with both teams likely to have adjusted to the cavernous backdrop of the stadium in Houston. Expect an entertaining match as both the Zags and Blue Devils seek a Final Four berth.