Final Four Power Rankings: Which team is national title favorite? – Sports Illustrated
When facing the Zags, the first decision any defensive game-planner must make is how to defend the post—and particularly, how much attention to give 7’1″ Przemek Karnowski, because so much of their offense flows through him on the blocks. Gonzaga has run an average of 15.8 possessions per game through the post during the NCAA tournament and 10.0 per game through Karnowski, who’s personally generated 1.13 points per possession on his post-ups or passes:
(Chart data from SI’s analysis of Synergy Sports Technology’s game logs.)
Each of the Zags’ four NCAA tournament opponents has taken a different approach to combating the Polish giant. No. 16 seed South Dakota State packed in to the extreme in round one; when Gonzaga looked to feed the ball inside, Karnowski’s defender played behind him, but the Jackrabbits essentially put their 4-man in his lap and sagged a guard near the paint to obstruct the passing lane, daring the Zags’ perimeter players to beat them with threes. If the ball did make it inside, South Dakota State preferred to dig with multiple guards rather than hard-double:
Northwestern’s undersized defense post-doubled for most of 2016–17, and in his press conference prior to the second round, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he expected that to continue. But the Wildcats threw a curveball, sagging their 4-man (like South Dakota State did) to prevent entries, then declining to instantly hard-double when Karnowski did get a post touch. Instead, Northwestern tried to sit its 5-man on Karnowski’s right shoulder, then slide its 4-man along the baseline, later, to cut off a potential drop-step countermove to his bread-and-butter, the lefty hook.
In the Sweet 16, West Virginia created enough chaos with its press that it limited the Zags to just 13 post possessions. Occasionally, the Mountaineers let their 5-man play behind Karnowski and defend him one-on-one. But they also used more aggressive strategies, which are shown below: They got into low crouches and fought to front Karnowski, and if he did receive an entry, they ran a hard double at him with their 4-man while using a weakside guard or wing to step into the passing lane to the cutting Johnathan Williams III, who’s Karnowski’s favorite target for dunk assists.
Xavier mixed its defenses enough in the Elite Eight—alternating between man-to-man, 2–3 zone and 1-3-1 zone—that the Zags only had 12 post possessions, but they were so hot from outside that it didn’t matter. When the Musketeers were in man, they often tried to three-quarter-front the post, sitting on Karnowski’s high side when guards looked to enter the ball from the top of the key or near-wings. Once the ball reached Karnowski, typically via a high-arcing feed, they initially gave him a one-on-one look and then ran a strongside guard at him for a delayed double-team.
When the Zags did get a post feed through Xavier’s 2–3 zone, the Musketeers sold out to stop Karnowski, collapsing three defenders and leaving multiple shooters open on the perimeter. I’m curious if South Carolina’s 1-2-2 zone will adopt a similar strategy in the Final Four: