Gonzaga's Sabonis is the best big man left in the Big Dance
DENVER — They called it the "sick ball." It was Gonzaga coaches' method for quarantining sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis, who arrived in Denver for the NCAA tournament's opening weekend battling the flu: setting aside a separate ball for Sabonis's shootarounds, marking it with his jersey number, and instructing head student manager Tim Stoddard to wipe it down with Purell and keep it stored in a towel when it wasn't in use. As a future doctor who's heading to the University of Florida's medical school in the fall, Stoddard was skeptical of the sick ball's impact, especially since Sabonis still participated in five-on-five drills. "I don't think the CDC endorses this as a virus control mechanism," Stoddard said. "But it's good to at least make people think we're doing something to help."
Even if it was just a placebo, none of Sabonis's teammates fell ill in Denver, his condition gradually improved, and the flu turned out to be the only containable aspect of the youngest son of Hall of Fame center (and Lithuanian legend) Arvydas Sabonis. Domantas scored 21 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the Zags' opening-round win over Seton Hall, and followed that with 19 and 10 in a second-round rout of Utah. Whereas in last year's NCAA tournament, the premiere big men—Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns—played for No. 1-seeded teams, the scariest low-post presence in the 2016 bracket is powering No. 11 Gonzaga, the lowest seed to reach the Sweet 16. Sabonis is the most efficient post-up scorer left in the NCAA tournament, and that's with a post-up volume (6.7 possessions per game) well above his closest competition:
After Sabonis laid waste to Seton Hall's frontcourt on Thursday, its coach, Kevin Willard, called him the "toughest matchup we've had this year"—especially because the Pirates couldn't use the defender guarding Sabonis's sweet-shooting, 6'11" teammate, senior Kyle Wiltjer, to double-team the post. "[Sabonis] was much more physical than he looked on film," Willard said, and that physicality was even more evident in the second round, when Sabonis was able to bury Utah's 7'1" star, Austrian Jakob Poeltl, deep under the rim on offense and hold ground in the post on D. Poeltl, who's widely projected to be a top-10 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, was held to just five points and four rebounds in what was likely his final college game.
"I think those first couple of times Poeltl hit [Sabonis] it was like, O.K., this is a little different deal," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, making reference to Sabonis's deceptive strength. "He's [also] quicker than he looks on tape, and he's got the best footwork I've ever seen from a big kid—he can pivot [and] move all day without traveling. ... And forget all that, talk to any of these coaches in this tournament: all you want is a guy with a heart like that, that just goes so hard every possession. That's the greatest attribute that he has. It's inspiring."
Of Sabonis's inherited attributes, he was slighted a bit on height (he's 6'11", to Arvydas' 7'3") and overall talent (pops was the best all-around center in the world during his prime) but not on the trademark family fire. Like Arvydas, Domantas is reserved off the court but full of fist-pumping rage on it. He's also fueled, rather than spoiled, by his family name. "That is on his shoulder all the time," says Italian-born assistant video coordinator Riccardo Fois, the lone European on the Zags' staff. "He's a Sabonis and he's representing Lithuania, and he feels like he can't let himself fail." The Sabonises didn't have much time to talk before the Utah game, but Arvydas told Domantas over the phone, from Lithuania, "Be careful with that long dude, and be aggressive."
The long dude was Poeltl, who on Aug. 12, 2015, while playing for the Austrian national team in a friendly against Lithuania, had scored 27 points in 28 minutes—some of them while being guarded by Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas. Sabonis had just eight points in 20 minutes of that game, but seven months later, in Denver, he was the star while Poeltl was the nonfactor. Sabonis recorded his 16th double-double in his past 21 games—an incredibly productive run that has covered for the absence of former starting center Przemek Karnowski, who was lost to a season-ending back injury in December.
With title co-favorite Michigan State knocked out of the Midwest region, the Zags may have a better path to the first Final Four in school history as a No. 11 seed than they did as a No. 2 seed in 2015, when they ran into eventual champ Duke in the Elite Eight. No. 10 Syracuse, then No. 4 Iowa State or No. 1 Virginia await in Chicago—and none of them can be excited about running into a Gonzaga team that's catching fire in March.
In Denver, the Zags delivered the best defensive effort of any Seton Hall opponent this season (allowing 0.72 points per possession) and scored at the third-most efficient rate of any Utah opponent (1.27 PPP). Sabonis is feeling so at home in the NCAA tournament that he's now even using English profanities—rather than the Lithuanian ones he formerly employed to stay on the right side of the refs—as exclamations after big plays. And in the blowout of the Utes, Wiltjer, a transfer who was mild-mannered in his 2012 Final Four cameo with Kentucky, scored 17 points and almost matched his Lithuanian frontcourt mate outburst for outburst, screaming and waving his arms to rile up the Pepsi Center crowd. Gonzaga is just fine with that part of Sabonis being contagious.