Underdogs no more: Gonzaga's Zach Collins embodies program's rise to powerhouse

1:06 | College Basketball
Gonzaga tops South Carolina 77-73, advances to NCAA Championship
Sunday April 2nd, 2017

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There’s nothing saccharine or quirky, endearing or serendipitous about the Gonzaga basketball team that will play for the national title on Monday night. Casting the Bulldogs as any form of an underdog, after 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments, would be as dated as calling Facebook a “start-up” or the Red Sox “cursed.”

Sitting 40 minutes from the school’s first national title marks the culmination of Gonzaga’s surge from underdog to blueblood over the past two decades. As No. 1 Gonzaga (37–1) outlasted No. 7 South Carolina, 77–73, on Saturday night in the national semifinal, the embodiment of the Bulldogs’ basketball evolution helped carry them to victory.

Seven-foot freshman center Zach Collins is a testament to the rarefied air in which Gonzaga exists in modern college basketball. Collins is Gonzaga’s first McDonald’s All-American, talented enough to be a one-and-done prospect yet still a reserve who comes off the bench for the Bulldogs. He played up to his reputation Saturday night, scoring 14 points and registering career highs in both rebounds (13) and blocks (6). “He’s not a back-up,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd says. “He’s really a pick-up.”

For nearly 30 minutes on Saturday night, it didn’t look like Gonzaga would need to be picked up. It led by 14 with 11:35 remaining and appeared poised to reach Monday night without breaking much of a sweat. But South Carolina went on a 14–0 run soon after, and the Bulldogs found themselves in a mud-wrestling match right until the buzzer. That’s when the most decorated recruit in school history shined brightest.

SI's best photos from Gonzaga's win over South Carolina

Collins’s signature play Saturday night will be talked about at Jack & Dan’s near the Gonzaga campus for decades. He flopped in a go-ahead three-pointer with 6:42 remaining, giving Gonzaga the lead for good. Collins pulled up from the top of the key and sailed a shot long that flattened on the back rim and accidentally splattered into the hoop. It wasn’t a shooter’s roll; it looked more like a basketball belly flop. “He missed it so bad it went in,” Lloyd joked. Collins took it a step further: “I don’t know how the hell it went in.”

But in addition to one fortuitous bounce, Collins kept on delivering, including a deft high-low assist to fellow big-man Przemek Karnowski to give Gonzaga a five-point lead with just under five minutes remaining. He also helped seal the game with a clutch block with 1:19 left and the Bulldogs clinging to a three-point lead. Collins had four fouls at the time, but he nimbly came from the help side to stymie South Carolina star Sindarius Thornwell. “I trust him … at the end of the game,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He’s handled it masterfully all year.”

Greg Nelson

The only downside of Collins’s performance Saturday night is that he reinforced why he’s projected as Gonzaga’s first one-and-done player. Adam Morrison’s departure for the 2006 NBA draft marked the first early-entry player in program history. (Austin Daye left after his sophomore year in 2009, Kelly Olynyk after his junior year in 2013 and Domas Sabonis in 2016 after his sophomore year.) But Collins could mark the first one-year toe-toucher in Gonzaga history.

Even his arrival on campus underscores how far Gonzaga has come on the recruiting trial, as Collins was offered by Arizona and could have also gone to Cal, Utah, San Diego State or New Mexico. “It’s just another example of how we’re continuing to progress as a program,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said.

College Basketball
Gonzaga tops South Carolina 77–73, advances to NCAA championship

Sports Illustrated reached out to a handful of NBA scouts about Collins on Saturday, and he’s projected as a solid top 20 pick who could even sneak into the top 15. He certainly didn’t hurt himself on his biggest stage yet, as he showcased power with an early crushing dunk, touch from the mid-range and great instincts and timing with five of his blocks coming in the second half. The early word circulating through NBA circles is one of a general expectation that he’ll leave after this season. “The skill set is off the charts, and he has a great feel for the game,” one NBA director of player personnel said. “He has a mid-range game and can play short corner. He plays the pick-and-pop game with easy and will be huge in the pick-and-roll game.”

Collins showed all of that Saturday night, the perfect marriage of an elite program and an elite recruit. “It’s moments like this, why I chose to come here,” he said. “This coaching staff is amazing. They’re a huge, huge reason why we’ve made it this far. I knew with the talent they brought in this year, we could be something special. I’m really happy to be a part of it.”

And Gonzaga is happy to have him. His short stay has a chance to forge a lasting legacy on Monday night.

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