GLENDALE, Ariz. — Even if his name is unfamiliar to some college basketball fans, most at least recognize Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski. At 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds, with a smooth game and a grizzly beard suited to a lumberjack, the fifth-year senior is one of the more identifiable players on the Bulldogs.
Karnowski, though, isn’t the only 7-footer to have played an integral part in getting Gonzaga here to the Final Four. There’s another, much less recognizable mountain in the middle: Zach Collins.
Collins, a 7-foot freshman who was a five-star prospect out of high school, has spent this year coming off the bench. But his presence gives the Bulldogs two skilled big men in a sport that’s become increasingly perimeter oriented. When that’s combined with excellent guard play, sparked by West Coast Conference Player of the Year Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga’s offense is hard to stop.
“I wouldn’t want to go against it. It’s pretty tough,” Collins said of the Zags’ one-two interior punch. “I think if you’re the other team you’ve just got to play both of us different ways because we both can do different things. I think that’s a tough situation for other teams, and I think that’s why it makes us good.”
Considering the way in which he has flown under the radar, Collins has been particularly impressive. Of the seven Gonzaga players who have logged over 600 minutes this season, Collins has the highest points per 100 possessions (32.5), true shooting percentage (70.6) and win shares per 40 minutes (.303).
“Zach is a great player,” said Karnowski. “He’s come to Gonzaga ready to play.”
Collins was the first McDonald’s All-American to enroll at Gonzaga directly from high school. Other McDonald’s All-Americans have played for Gonzaga, including Williams-Goss, but they have transferred after playing at least a season elsewhere. Collins said Gonzaga was one of the first schools to show interest in him early in his high school career.
“I knew I could trust them when I wasn’t as good of a player as I am now,” Collins, who is from Las Vegas, said. “They still talked to me. They still gave me a chance.”Gonzaga also gave Collins a chance to “win a lot,” another major part of his decision. The NCAA tournament has been without Gonzaga just one time – the year was 1998 -- since Collins has been alive, in 1998. So, despite interest from high-major schools like Arizona and fellow Final Four participant Oregon, Collins knew Gonzaga was where he wanted to go.
“I didn’t really need to think about it anymore,” he said.
Collins has improved in many ways since coming to Spokane, particularly in his footwork on the perimeter guarding smaller, quick players
“I owe the coaches for that,” Collins said. “They pushed me every single day. Even when I didn’t like it, they pushed me to move my feet and be able to guard perimeters likes that. Definitely not something that is natural to me. I had to work on it a lot.”
Rim protection is another area where Collins, who is averaging 5.2 blocks per 100 possessions and has the nation’s 32nd best block percentage at 9.1, has seen improvement. The coaching staff has worked hard on timing and being able to recognize whether it’s a good situation to go up for a block, as well as “little tricks [so] that while I’m in the air I don’t foul,” he said.
Against South Carolina, Gonzaga’s opponent in Saturday’s Final Four semifinal game, Collins’ value becomes even greater. Gonzaga has the nation’s most efficient defense, but the Gamecocks are right there with them, at No. 2. Still, South Carolina doesn’t have the frontcourt depth. Freshman forward Maik Kostar, who is 6-foot-10, and sophomore Chris Silva, 6-foot-9, are solid on the interior, but Karnowski and Collins wear opponents down.
“It’s going to be hard,” Kostar said of the defensive challenge that Gonzaga employs, “but we have to deny them as much as possible.”
While Collins’ contributions have helped get Gonzaga this far, there is room for improvement, and that’s where Karnowski comes in. As Collins noted, the two players have different strengths, but Karnowski is trying to teach the freshman the parts of his game that make him so effective.
“I think the biggest part that he could learn from my game is to see the floor and if they double him, how to distribute the ball,” Karnowski said. “I think he’s been doing a really job late in the season with that. He’s going to be a big time player.”