College Basketball
Air up there: Zags, Utah features rare meeting of big men
College Basketball

Air up there: Zags, Utah features rare meeting of big men

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 7:17 p.m. ET

DENVER (AP) The big man has not played himself completely out of college basketball.

Not out of this year's NCAA Tournament, either.

When Gonzaga and Utah meet Saturday, with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, the game will feature two of the best big men in America - 7-foot Jakob Poeltl of the Utes vs. 6-11 Domantas Sabonis of the Bulldogs.

And while it won't resemble Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leaning on Robert Parrish, this one could feel like something of a throwback - a game that could very well be won and lost in the post.


''It's certainly a story line that's going to have a lot to do with the outcome - how they guard (Poeltl), how we guard Sabonis, collectively, how it all plays out,'' said Larry Krystkowiak, who coaches the third-seeded Utes.

The advent of the 3-point line nearly three decades ago put an increased value on guards who can shoot and big men who can flash to the wing. That took an emphasis off post play, which, in turn, makes something like Saturday's game a once-in-a-blue-moon event.

Of the two, Poeltl, whose mom played for the Austrian women's volleyball team, is more of the pure post player, while Sabonis, son of former NBA star Arvydas Sabonis, plays inside-out more.

Sabonis averages a double-double, while Poeltl is one rebound short. Their stats in the wins Thursday were eerily similar. Poeltl: 16 points and 18 rebounds. Sabonis: 21 points and 16 rebounds.

''I think we can all agree that he's a very talented player,'' Poeltl said. ''I'm definitely looking forward to taking on the challenge.''

Stopping Sabonis seemingly gets tougher by the day. Already an NBA prospect, Sabonis has improved quickly this year, with Gonzaga leaning on him more because of the season-ending injury to their other big man, Przemek Karnowski, in December.

Mark Few, coach of the 11th-seeded Zags, said Sabonis ''likes being coached, kind of craves it, soaks it all up, seeks it out,'' and that sends a strong message to the rest of the team.

Krystkowiak, who spent a decade banging around in the post in the NBA in the `80s and `90s, said ''I'm curious as you,'' to see how this matchup plays out.

''Typically the guards are the ones shining,'' he said. ''We need some of that to happen as well. But this is unique, having a couple true, throwback 5-men that are the heads of their respective snakes.''

Other notables about the Gonzaga-Utah game Saturday:

TURNOVERS: The teams are similar in so many ways, including one that neither coach is proud of. Both committed 20 turnovers in their victories Thursday. Part of it was because the opponents they faced played high-risk, high-reward defense. But still. Twenty turnovers? ''I don't think that sits well with either of us,'' Few said. ''It doesn't sit well with me.''

OH, THAT GUY: Sabonis isn't the only big man, or the only guy who can score, for the Bulldogs. Their leading scorer this year is 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer, who averages 20.5 points a game. He only had 13 against Seton Hall, and struggled from the floor, going 5 for 14. He's not to be ignored, of course, and Krystkowiak certainly won't. ''It's not going to be on any one person,'' the coach said. ''We've to have a multitude of guys locked in and focused on trying to stop him.''

SOUND FAMILIAR?: The only other time the Bulldogs have entered the tournament as a No. 11 seed, this happened: They traveled to Denver, beat a team from the Big East, then faced a powerhouse out of Utah. That was in 2011, when the Zags beat St. John's to start, but got knocked out by ''The Jimmer'' - Jimmer Fredette of Brigham Young.

REBUILDING: Krystkowiak's first year at Utah coincided with the program's first season in the Pac-12. It wasn't pretty. Half the roster left or got kicked off. The Utes went 6-25. Some might see this as a quick turnaround. ''When you do the math on it, it's about 1800 days,'' the coach said. ''Didn't seem real fast to me.'' The key to rebuilding, in Krystkowiak's words: ''First thing is, we're never going to cheat because I don't want to be held hostage by any situation that's out of our control. Second thing is, we're not going to recruit any turds. We've stayed pretty true to that.''


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