Luke DeCock

Big-man battle between UNC, Gonzaga a key matchup and a throwback

Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks can look at Gonzaga and see, if not a program with the rich tradition North Carolina has, a program with a similar philosophy: Go big.

In a college basketball world of four-guard lineups and stretch 4s, the Tar Heels and Zags both stick, resolutely, to a traditional lineup with two post players of considerable size. And both make post feeds a staple of their offense, a throwback to a different time.

So after a season of trying to match up with teams like Duke and Butler and Oregon that spread the floor around one big man in the post, Hicks and Meeks will actually get to stay home in the lane. For once.

“We finally don’t have to chase the little guys around,” Hicks said.

North Carolina has Meeks and Hicks, with Tony Bradley and Luke Maye coming off the bench, although Maye is comfortable stepping out of the post. Gonzaga alternates two 7-footers, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, alongside 6-9 Johnathan Williams, with 6-10 Killian Tillie also available. The Zags are one of only a very few teams that are actually bigger than North Carolina, every bit as big, if not as deep, as Leonard Hamilton’s array of big men at Florida State.

Not only will it make for interesting matchups, it will be a change of pace for two teams used to adapting to the way other teams play.

“You know, it’s strange,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “(Gonzaga coach) Mark (Few) and I were talking about it a few minutes ago, that all year long we’ve had to send our big guys out on the court to play against all those screen and pop guys that want to shoot 3-point shots and how comfortable when you have to tell Kennedy and Karnowski that you don’t have to do it that this game.”

With Hicks struggling – 9-for-29 from the floor over the past four games, averaging 6.0 points, down from his season average of 12.8 coming out of the Texas Southern game – the focus will be on Meeks and Karnowski, one a 300-pounder, the other considerably slimmed down from that range but still an imposing force inside.

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

One factor in Meeks’ 25-point, 14-rebound performance Saturday was the willingness of Oregon forward Jordan Bell to leave the post trying to block shots, leaving both the lane and the boards open for Meeks, who was perfectly happy to be a recipient of passes and collector of rebounds. It will be a considerably different dynamic Monday, and the real battle inside may turn out to be who can draw the most fouls.

Normally, Hicks’ mobility would be an asset in that regard, despite his tendency for foul-proneness at the other end, but his offensive struggles certainly raise the question whether North Carolina will be able to exploit that. At the defensive end, North Carolina will have to handle Gonzaga’s raw bulk, not something the Tar Heels often see or can replicate in practice with Bradley and Maye on the second team.

“I think just making them work hard for the ball is the biggest thing,” Meeks said. “That’s getting down quicker than they are and establishing position on the defensive end. Those guys are great at backing guys down and good at making shots and making angles. I would say the biggest thing we’ll focus on is trying to eliminate them from getting as many post touches as possible.”

In a modern game -- and NCAA tournament -- dominated by guard play, the national title may come down to which team’s bigs are better.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

National championship

UNC vs. Gonzaga

When: 9:20 p.m. Monday

Where: Glendale, Ariz.

TV: CBS

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