There weren't a lot of bright spots in Gonzaga's loss to Arizona in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Arizona's victory was so dominant that the NCAA crew penciled the Wildcats into the graphic to advance to play San Diego State with plenty of time left in the second half.
For Gonzaga, there was Przemek Karnowski and then there was everyone else. While much of the team went out with a pretty authoritative whimper, Karnowski displayed every bit of skill that really shows how much of a force he can be in a game.
Our loveable Polish big man finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. He also did this while essentially being double-teamed every time he touched the ball down low by an Arizona defense that rotates like its no one's business. It really was a sight of beauty, because early in the season, Karnowski was truly struggling.
Early in the season, Karnowski showcased flashes of greatness that were often muted by the dumbest of dumb fouls. A prime example came against Dayton, where Karnowski went ahead and committed his third foul with less than five seconds left in the first half.
Situations like that early one seemed to come way more often than they didn't. As the season progressed, Karnowski reined in his fouling tendencies, and with it Zag nation began to see what makes him so drool worthy. Karnowski's final line isn't that exciting -- 10.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. But it is the idea that that line will go up that is what will make next season special.
The microcosm that is the Arizona game a few days ago is the best takeaway for Karnowski's growth over the season. Not only did he finally establish himself as the best Gonzaga player on the floor, he did so against one of the top team's in the country. He also showcased every bit of his improved game. It is hard to find good things in the tournament loss, but Karnowski's overall game shines the brightest.
There is still plenty of room for improvement for Karnowski on the offensive front. Shooting 50 percent from the free throw line isn't going to cut it (but probably is what it will be). He needs to remember to go up stronger some times so the gimme two points don't roll off the rim. But overall, his progress on things like his fundamentals and his footwork have come across very nicely. Karnowski is locked in when he is down low, hitting 59 percent of his shots. Pretty much, when Karnowski has the position needed, his soft touch can hit the shot.
In both instances, Karnowski identifies the defensive set. He isn't being double teamed and he has the height advantage. In each instance, he is only a few feet away from the hoop, and doesn't waste much time getting the ball up in the air. He takes one dribble each time, sets his feet and lets fly.
Karnowski still had his fair share of turnovers this year, and part of that comes because he is so large he commands a double team down low, especially against the smaller teams in the WCC. Against Arizona, it was sometimes impossible to put the ball on the floor with how quickly those rotations came. The thing with double teams, obviously, is that in a man-to-man scheme, a double team means someone else is slightly open. Having a good pass for a big man is only half the battle. You also need to identify when the double team is coming and when to dump the ball. For the most part, he is doing a bit better with that.
(my example GIF isn't loading on the site, so check it out here)
In this situation, Karnowski isn't in much of a position to do anything. Arizona knows that and is on that double team immediately. Karnowski sees Aaron Gordon comes over and immediately dumps the ball to Gordon's original assignment. It was a quick pass, and Dower fumbles a bit. At the end of it all, Dower scores on a post-up move.
It has been a bit of an issue hammering it home to Karnowski that he is more often than not the largest human being on the court (and probably the whole arena). So it is nice to see him follow through on his face up attempts to the hoop by using his wide body and just plowing the basketball through for second-chance points.
The final example might be my favorite play of the whole game. For realistic purposes, I wouldn't necessarily consider this a high percentage shot. But in a game where no one else was doing much of anything, I'll give props on Karnowski taking over and putting up this guard-like runner late in the game.
(again - example isn't loading, so click on it here)
This is the side of the coin that Karnowski made the biggest improvement on. Early on in the season, we weren't able to see much of Karnowski because of his wild, flailing fouls he constantly committed. Pretty much no matter what, you come in hacking and swinging on a shot attempt and you will be called for the foul. It took some time, but finally Karnowski started to pay defense the only way a big man can in college -- hands straight in the air and taking up a whole crapton of space.
The result was a transformation of sorts. Karnowski is our little redwood tree in the post, and just having his presence there completely alters any shot attempt or drive to the basket. His block numbers per 40 minutes doubled from his freshman to his sophomore year and his 95.0 defensive rating led the WCC. Gonzaga had a good defense this year (for the most part), and Karnowski was largely the anchor that held it all together.
The first example (which again isn't loading - check it out here) is the best example. Here, he is holding off a fellow 7 footer the best way to play defense -- hands up and not budging an inch. Karnowski has weight a lot of other players don't, and Kaleb Tarczewski ended up with nowhere to go. On the play, he was called for traveling.
The hands up defensive attitude is the reason for the transition. This year, with the rule changes going into effect to clamp down on hand checks, a player of Karnowski's size needs to keep them up at all times. He also needs to keep them close, so no errant elbows hit above the shoulders of a smaller opponent.
T.J. McConnell thinks he has an opening here, and Karnowski just shoves him out of the way. It only took a couple of steps, but it was all lateral movement with his arms up that kept McConnell from any sort of clean look at the basket. Karnowski is surprisingly quick on his feet for a man of his size, and since he was able to narrow in on the wild hacks at shooting players, when people drive at him, he makes them pay.
At the end of the day, this improvement is a bit of a moot point after such a big loss. With Sam Dower graduating next year, even with the addition of Kyle Wiljters, as it stands, the Gonzaga Bulldogs frontcourt is a tad bit then. This means that Mark Few will need Karnowski manning the paint for as much of the game as possible. The game against Arizona makes it seem like a pretty good sign that Karnowski is up to the challenge.