By Andrew Kahn
Up to this point, the single play Zach Collins is best known for in this NCAA Tournament is a botched no-call that inspired Northwestern coach Chris Collins to run onto the court in protest. Yes, what stood as a blocked shot should have been a goaltending violation. That doesn’t change the fact that Collins, a freshman for Gonzaga, is a great shot blocker who is capable of scoring inside and out. He joins former “Rising Stars” Joel Berry (North Carolina), Chris Silva (South Carolina) and Tyler Dorsey (Oregon) at the Final Four this weekend in Glendale, Arizona.
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On the balanced Bulldogs, Collins is fifth in scoring (9.9 points per game) and fourth in rebounding (5.7). What makes him an important piece on this dominant team — and a potential future lottery pick — is his combination of size and skill. At 7’, 230 pounds, Collins can protect the rim and bang in the post. He does most of his work in the paint, but he has a soft shooting touch, making 9 of 20 threes this season.
Coming off the bench for fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski, as he’s done all season, Collins has been steady when called upon throughout the NCAA Tournament. He had a big game against Northwestern as No. 1 seed Gonzaga survived a scare in the second round. He shot four of six from the field, tallying 14 points, five rebounds and four blocks (three of which were perfectly legal). Twelve of his points came after halftime, including traditional three-point plays on consecutive possessions.
Collins told the media after that he was mad at himself for not being aggressive in the first half. “I just told myself you’ve got to come in and do your job and be confident. And I’ve been doing it all year. I’ve been bringing energy all year, and I just had to remember that I have to have the confidence in myself to go out there and make plays, and that’s what I did.”
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few had no problem playing Collins down the stretch because he can defend and make free throws (he hit six of eight against Northwestern and is at 75 percent on the year).
According to Hoop-Math.com, 71 percent of Collins’ shots this season have come at the rim, and he’s converting that same percentage. It hasn’t simply been alley-oops or transition buckets, especially as Gonzaga has faced better competition these past couple of weeks. Collins is absorbing contact and finishing, using the glass when necessary.
Like Karnowski and fellow freshman big Killian Tillie, Collins is a good passer (though turnovers have been an issue). He’s a versatile defender — Gonzaga switched all screens at times in a nail-biting win over West Virginia in the Sweet 16, and Collins held up. (Now is a good time to mention that while he’s listed as a forward, he’s played mostly the 5-spot for Gonzaga.)
Factoring in the time he spent on the floor, there was no better rebounder in the West Coast Conference this season than Collins. The Zags have no weak links, a big reason why they’re tops in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and 14th on offense.
Surprisingly, Collins is the first McDonald’s All American to play for Gonzaga out of high school (three others, including current point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, earned that honor and eventually transferred to Spokane). Collins won four state titles at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, and he’s looking to keep the championship streak going at the college level.
South Carolina will present a tough challenge in the Final Four. The Gamecocks are excellent defensively, have multiple players who can put their head down and get to the rim, and have two big men — the aforementioned Silva and Maik Kotsar — whose confidence has skyrocketed in recent games. Collins will be important defensively — if Gonzaga turns South Carolina into a jump-shooting team, the game won’t be close — and offensively, where he will look to create inside and out and get to the foul line. A potential title game matchup with North Carolina would figure to be an epic front-court battle. Collins will be right in the middle of it all.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com, and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.