HOUSTON – Among hundreds of questions Gonzaga players heard from the media Saturday, one ranked high on the surprise meter.
A TV reporter asked Kyle Wiltjer: “Is there any chance you guys look past Duke toward the Final Four?” Awkward moment of silence. The reporter quickly added, “Or are you guys laser-focused on playing that game?”
Wiltjer politely answered, “The way the tournament works, you have to win the game in front of you.”
That game is a big one for second-seeded Gonzaga (35-2), which will be an underdog for just the second time this season when it faces top-seeded Duke (32-4). The winner advances to the Final Four next week in Indianapolis.
Duke has been to 14 Elite Eights in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 35 seasons. They’re 11-2 in Elite Eight games en route to four national titles. Gonzaga coach Mark Few called the Blue Devils “probably one of the most decorated programs in modern history.”
Gonzaga is trying to make a little history of its own. The Zags are in the Elite Eight for the second time, joining the 1999 team. The Zags have achieved several other milestones along the way, including a school-record 22-game winning streak and a program-best 35 wins.
“Obviously it’s Duke, which is great,” senior guard Kevin Pangos said. “But you’re not playing the team from the 1990s, you’re playing this Duke team, which is very talented. We’re focused on what we have to do to beat this Duke team.”
And that entails a long list of objectives. Like the Zags, the Blue Devils rank in the top five in most offensive efficiency ratings. Freshman center Jahlil Okafor is a player of the year candidate and projected by many as the top pick in the NBA draft. He was held to six points, just his second game in single digits, but the Blue Devils still knocked off Utah 63-57 on Friday.
Freshman forward Justise Winslow poured in 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He’s sixth on ESPN.com’s Top 100. Freshman guard Tyus Jones checks in at 11.5 points and 5.7 assists. He’s No. 28. Senior guard Quinn Cook is second in scoring at 15.7 points.
Zags center Przemek Karnowski will likely draw the defensive assignment on the 6-11, 270-pound Okafor.
“Talented guy, strong, very mobile, agile,” Karnowski said. “It’s kind of like playing Saint Mary’s in that all the balls go through him, through the post.”
Karnowski was all but committed to Gonzaga when Duke jumped into the mix late in the recruiting process. The big man had cut his list to Gonzaga and California and was leaning heavily toward the Zags.
“One of the assistants invited me for a visit,” Karnowski said. “I had to go back to Poland and take my exams so I couldn’t make it. If I didn’t take those exams at home I wouldn’t have been able to come here and play. They’re only available once a year.”
Krzyzewski said Wiltjer reminds him of former Blue Devil Ryan Kelly, now with the Lakers. He mentioned the experience of Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos, who have played in a combined 273 games. Krzyzewski noted that Gonzaga’s bigs of Wiltjer, Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis bring different skill sets.
“They’re a well-oiled machine,” Krzyzewski said, “especially at the offensive end.”
The Zags are 0-6 against No. 1 seeds but remain confident.
“We’ve already made history a couple times this year,” senior forward Byron Wesley said. “We definitely want to make a little more.”
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