In its first Final Four, now playing for its first national championship, Gonzaga has passed the eye test in more ways than one.
Not only did the Zags hold off a tough, resolute South Carolina team on Saturday to advance to face North Carolina on Monday, but gargantuan center Przemek Karnowski emerged undamaged after getting poked in the right eye Saturday.
Karnowski missed a good chunk of the first half, then returned to play in the second half, and his optical health seemed to improve overnight.
“I just got a scratch on my eyeball,” Karnowski said Saturday, “but I don’t have any problems with vision or anything like that. I have a follow-up today with the doctor, and I hope everything is going to be good.”
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Karnowski, at 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds, is a big reason why Gonzaga was not only a No. 1 seed but has been the top-ranked team in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings throughout the second half of the season. North Carolina enters Monday’s game third. Las Vegas has North Carolina a 1.5-point favorite, KenPom has Gonzaga by 4.
That should dispel any notion that the Zags, who started out as a mid-major but now have the budget and reputation of a Power 5 program, if not the conference affiliation, are some kind of upstart.
There are legitimate major-conference players on this team, from Karnowski to freshman big man Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American; to Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss, a versatile, dangerous guard; to California transfer Jordan Mathews; to Missouri transfer Jonathan Williams. It’s an amazing array of talent, especially the slippery Williams-Goss, who’s as dangerous as a distributor as he is as a scorer.
The Zags posted wins over Florida and Arizona and everyone else they played except for one game, against Brigham Young, in February. And while Gonzaga may not have traveled the toughest road to this point, coming out of the West Coast Conference and facing 11th-seeded Xavier in the West Regional final and 7th-seeded South Carolina on Saturday, the Zags are still 37-1 and have a chance to be the first one-loss team to win a national title since N.C. State in 1974.
“We don’t pretend or think we’re anywhere near the level with the tradition of Carolina or Duke or Kentucky,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “But at the same time, I think we do feel we’ve been a national entity for quite some time. The product, the brand, the players, the team that we’re putting out there on the floor we feel can compete with anybody in the country on any given night.”
The dividing line between a program in its 20th Final Four, and 11th title game, and one in its first of both, is one of history and tradition, not talent. Of this, the Tar Heels are aware.
“I actually read through the story of David and Goliath yesterday,” North Carolina’s Justin Jackson said. “That isn’t what this is at all.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
UNC vs. Gonzaga
When: 9:20 p.m. Monday
Where: Glendale, Ariz.