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Gonzaga brings ‘maybe the best starting five in America’

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Even before West Virginia tipped off its second-round game against Notre Dame on Saturday, assistant coach Erik Martin began scouting Gonzaga in advance of a potential Sweet 16 matchup.

His work wasn’t conducted in vain.

The Bulldogs (34-1), top-seeded in the West Region, benefited from a goaltending no-call to hold off Northwestern 79-73, and now will meet No. 4 seed West Virginia (28-8) on Thursday night in San Jose, Calif.

If you’re into metrics, Gonzaga ranks ninth in RPI and No. 1 overall in KenPom. On the Vegas side, Gonzaga carries 6-1 odds to win the national championship, third-best behind North Carolina and Kansas at 4-1.

From his film evaluation, Martin said the Bulldogs boast “maybe the best starting five in America” — three-fifths of which arrived via transfers.

Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss became the West Coast Conference player of the year after back-to-back double-digit scoring seasons at Washington. Johnathan Williams led Missouri in scoring, rebounding and blocks two years ago. Graduate transfer Jordan Mathews started 65 games at Cal.

Then there’s 7-foot-1, 300-pound Polish import Przemek Karnowski, who three seasons ago scored 19 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds against West Virginia during an 80-76 win at the Coliseum.

“He was a load then, and now he’s in better condition,” Martin said. “Plus he has a little bit of a right hand.”

While Gonzaga’s 79th-rated strength-of-schedule is the weakest among the Sweet 16 teams, Mark Few’s club owns premium neutral-court wins over Florida (77-72) and Iowa State (73-71) at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and beat Arizona 69-62 at Staples Center.

According to their records of 7-0 against the RPI top 50 and 13-1 vs. the top 100, the Bulldogs compare to West Virginia’s marks of 7-4 and 15-5.

According to the tape measure, they’re the tallest team West Virginia has faced all season. They keep Karnowski fresh by subbing 7-1 freshman Zach Collins — who scores 10.3 per game and shoots 45 percent from 3 — while using the 6-9 Williams and 6-10 freshman Killian Tillie at power forward.

“They’re big,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins. “(Karnowski’s) a low-block guy, and then they bring in another 7-footer that’s got good footwork, very agile and really skilled.

“We’ve faced teams with size before, but you’ve got to block out a little higher. You’ve got to do a better job of not letting them get you under the basket where they can reach over you.”

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