Title game's biggest matchup features players whose bodies once stood in their way

1:02 | College Basketball
UNC beats Oregon 77-76, will face Gonzaga in NCAA Final
Monday April 3rd, 2017

GLENDALE, Ariz. — For once, Przemek Karnowski wasn’t drawing any attention. It was the tail end of Gonzaga’s off-day press conference, and Karnowski was seated alongside his coach, Mark Few, and teammates Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams, all of whom had been asked questions by reporters. But the burly, bearded forward from Poland had fielded none until the session’s final inquiry, when he was asked about the following night’s matchup with North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks. A smile peeked from within Karnowski’s bushy facial hair. “Appreciate it,” he joked. “Thank you very much.” And then he offered his expectations for the national championship game’s most anticipated duel. “I think,” he said, “it's going to be a lot of big bodies hitting around.”

This, as it turned out, ended up being perhaps the most frequent line of questioning throughout the day. Monday’s national title tilt will feature a bevy of talent (the understatedly excellent Justin Jackson, the game-controlling Nigel Williams-Goss, the ascendant Zach Collins) and two mastermind coaches, all factors that may decide the outcome. But eyes will undoubtedly be drawn to the two biggest bodies on the sport’s biggest stage, a pair of imposing and traditional back-to-the-basket post players who are essential to arranging their teams’ meeting.

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It is the 7’1”, 300-pound Karnowski who serves as the fulcrum of the Zags’ offense, as his posting and passing abilities can make teams regret collapsing on him as much as leaving him defended by a single player. And the 6’10”, 260-pound Meeks, whose 25 points and 14 (often timely) boards carried the Tar Heels past Oregon on Saturday, is the best offensive glass-cleaner (grabbing 16.4% of such available rebounds, eighth nationally) on the best offensive-rebounding team in the country (41.7%). Their clash Monday will be as rugged and physical as it will be pivotal, a prospect both are relishing.

“These are the games I live for,” Meeks said, later adding: “It’s definitely gonna be a dogfight.”

“I’m just very excited for the matchup,” said Karnowski. “I think it’s gonna be a great show.”

What the two share besides their excitement and mass is a reminder that size and skill are not guarantors of success—that the same bodies that are now their greatest assets were once, for admittedly very different reasons, liabilities that nearly kept them off the court.

Lance King/Getty Images

Meeks’s issue arrived with him on campus, a largely self-inflicted lack of conditioning that caused immediate problems with his adjustment to not only the rigors of major college basketball but especially to the Tar Heels’ demanding, up-and-down style of play. Meeks came to Chapel Hill weighing 317 pounds and stayed there, even amidst high-volume workouts, thanks to a steady and unregulated diet of fast food, sugary drinks and pizza. His early production was promising (a 15.6% rebounding rate on offense and 24.9% on defense), but his freshman learning curve was made steeper by a lack of fitness, which often left him winded and helped limit him to just 16.3 minutes per game.

“I don’t think he could ever display the abilities he had at that time because his conditioning, his body composition was such a factor,” North Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian said Sunday.

The first step came in the early stages of Meeks’ freshman season. Sahratian had Meeks keep a food log and then compared it to the records of players’ food purchases available to the Tar Heels’ staff. He noticed his new charge was being something short of truthful. “We had a real come-to-Jesus meeting,” Sahratian said. “I had to call him on it. That was a little bit of a turning point.”

The process would not be easy, but it was underway. Over the next year, Meeks began cleaning up his eating habits and upping his cardio regimen while adding a mix of exercises designed to increase explosiveness. By his sophomore season, Meeks was down to 270 pounds and up to 23.3 minutes per game. “I took it upon myself to just try to do the best job I could,” Meeks said. “I knew some of the injuries, me weighing that much didn’t help it at all. I just tried to get in the best shape I can.”

The player now averaging 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds for the Tar Heels is “a completely different athlete,” Sahratian said. “It’s been a long journey and transformation.”

Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Karnowski’s journey has been at once shorter but much more grave and further beyond his control. Last December, during what was to be his senior season, Karnowski fell during practice and injured his back. He spent the next few weeks sidelined by spasms and then suddenly took a sharp turn for the worse. Karnowski could hardly get out of bed and rapidly shed weight, eventually losing some 70 pounds. The most basic daily tasks became arduous to impossible, requiring help. (“I tied his shoes a few times,” said guard Rem Bakamus, his roommate. “Thank God I didn’t have to help him wipe or anything like that.”) It was not until early January that doctors discovered the culprit: a staph infection in a bulging disk in his back that had spread to his leg, requiring immediate surgery.

The resulting, harrowing comeback story has been told well and often: how Karnowski required an IV drip for months; how he could hardly move, let alone exert himself; how a return to basketball was secondary to a return to normal living. “We just wanted him to be healthy again and be able to do day-to-day activities,” Bakamus said.

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Then, throughout last spring and summer, Karnwoski underwent a process that Few described this week as “miraculous.” He rehabbed heavily, including pool therapy and bodyweight exercises, to slowly regain his strength. He received a medical redshirt from the NCAA, granting him eligibility to return to Gonzaga this past season. In June he was O.K.’d to run and jump. By October he had been cleared to play five-on-five, but the Zags’ coaching staff remained cautious, easing him in by never having him practice more than two consecutive days. “Honestly, I was really nervous when I watched him early, when he would fall, take a hit,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “But over time, that nervousness has gone away because I’ve seen him get up from those falls.”

By December Karnowski was practicing without limitation, the metal rods in his back rendered an afterthought. More than just getting up from falls, Karnowski has excelled, averaging 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds to help power Gonzaga deeper than it has ever been in the NCAA tournament and becoming one of this season’s most remarkable stories. “To battle through what he had to go through last year just speaks to his character and how much of a warrior he is,” Bakamus said.

“It just taught me a lot, just appreciating all the little things in life, just take everything with a smile on your face,” Karnowski said Sunday. And the big things, like banging around the post with another star big man with a national title on the line? That’s worth a smile too.

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