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Men’s Basketball: Northwestern faces daunting matchup against Gonzaga

Przemek Karnowski fights past a defender. The Gonzaga big poses a challenge for Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Przemek Karnowski fights past a defender. The Gonzaga big poses a challenge for Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

Przemek Karnowski fights past a defender. The Gonzaga big poses a challenge for Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Ben Pope, Reporter

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Men’s Basketball

SALT LAKE CITY — Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, has lost just once all season and has a 90 percent chance to win Saturday’s second-round game against Northwestern, according to ESPN’s BPI predictor.

But the Bulldogs (33-1) remain largely a mystery to most of the nation’s power conference teams, including the Wildcats (24-11).

“I really hadn’t seen them play a lot, other than highlights,” coach Chris Collins said. “Last night was really important for me to just watch them a lot. I tried to watch as many games as I could, just to get a better feel for who they are.”

After watching the film, Collins said Gonzaga reminds him of Michigan State for their ability to play in transition and force opponents on their heels, with leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss leading the charge.

Senior forward Sanjay Lumpkin, however, offered another Big Ten comparison for an entirely different reason.

“They kind of resemble Purdue,” Lumpkin said. “They have obviously great wings and guys that can shoot the ball. And if you stop them in transition, they have size, and we face that a lot with Purdue with both (Caleb) Swanigan and (Isaac) Haas.”

Lumpkin was referencing Bulldogs big men Zach Collins, a 7-foot forward, and Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1 center who is their second-leading scorer this year.

Making it particularly hard to pin down Gonzaga’s strengths — and which Big Ten opponent it most closely mirrors — is the fact that the West Region’s No. 1 seed only played five power conference teams this season, and none since December.

The Bulldogs then proceeded to rip through the far inferior West Coast Conference, winning all of their games by double digits before being upset by BYU in the regular season finale. Coach Collins said he watched the BYU game in particular when screening Gonzaga on Thursday night.

Providing an extra dose of motivation for NU to upset one of the nation’s top-ranked teams is the fact that Thursday’s dramatic victory over Vanderbilt, the program’s first-ever tournament win, has been somewhat overshadowed by coverage of Matthew Fisher-Davis’s critical foul with 14 seconds left.

“Everyone wants to talk about the foul. But they don’t want to talk about the plays we made down the stretch and the plays that (Bryant McIntosh) made, the free throws that Dererk (Pardon) made, the game Scottie (Lindsey) had,” Lumpkin said. “But that’s something we’ve faced … all the time I’ve been at Northwestern, when everything has been overshadowed. That absolutely is extra motivation.”

At 6-foot-8, Pardon, will have to deal with Zach Collins and Karnowski’s size and also prove that he can handle a double team, which Vanderbilt used to force the sophomore center into five turnovers.

On the other end of the court, the Cats may have received a blueprint to neutralize Gonzaga’s deep array of shooters — the Bulldogs have seven players averaging more than 7 points per game this season — from No. 16 seed South Dakota State, which held the No. 1 seed to 66 points Thursday, their lowest total since Dec. 10.

If NU can get a similarly effective performance from defensive stalwarts Lumpkin and sophomore forward Vic Law, it could have a realistic chance to shock the bracket Saturday.

But junior guard Bryant McIntosh, for one, isn’t ready to shed the underdog role just yet.

“It’s going to be tough. It’s not going to just be one stone that we have to throw in order to beat them,” McIntosh said, referencing the David vs. Goliath storyline. “I would be OK with being the David in this situation. … That would mean a lot to everybody in the program, and I think it would be a great story for the country.”

Twitter: @benpope111