GLENDALE, Ariz. — This season’s freshman class is arguably the best crop of newcomers that college basketball has seen in over a decade. Between the overall depth and one-and-done star power of the group, it was a class that was discussed at length throughout the season.
Until the Final Four started.
As mock-draft darlings like Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball and Malik Monk started to disappear from March Madness, the focus on freshmen and the NBA Draft began to fade. One of the common storylines of the Final Four even revolved around the lack of one-and-done freshmen playing in Glendale.
Gonzaga freshman big man Zach Collins and his outstanding play on Saturday showed that we shouldn’t be finished talking about this season’s newcomers.
Coming off the bench and giving a huge lift on both ends of the floor, Collins finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks as he helped the Bulldogs to a 77-73 win over South Carolina during Saturday’s first national semifinal.
Picking up his first double-double of the season, Collins had an extreme amount of confidence entering Saturday’s game despite a poor recent stretch during the NCAA tournament. Collins even predicted to roommate and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss that he was about to erupt on the sport’s biggest stage.
“Well, me and Zach are roommates. And we’ve been roommates all year long,” Williams-Goss said. “And he told me before the game, he said, ‘Look, I wouldn’t want to be playing against me today.’ And Coach says it all year that we just can’t talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk. And when he told me that I looked at him and I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it then.’ For him to come out with a double-double with six blocks, he walked the walk.”
“It feels really good. I know I had a rough couple of games prior to this. I was hearing from everyone on social media about how I wasn’t ready for this stage and how the speed of the game was too much for me. That made me really mad,” Collins said. “I knew I could play at this level. I just wanted to come out, don’t be passive. Be as aggressive as possible with everything I could.”
As starting center Przemek Karnowski went back to the locker room with an eye injury in the first half, Collins and his aggression became a major force on both ends of the floor for the Zags. Owning the glass, finishing around the basket and walling up to block dunks, Collins made all of the plays that should put him squarely in the one-and-done discussion. Collins even willed an ugly three-pointer from the top of the key to go down during a key stretch that helped stop a big South Carolina run.
“That three was huge,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “It was a 13-0 or 16-0 run. The wheels feel like they’re coming off. It’s one of those shots, he missed it so bad, it went in. You get a sticky ball sometimes. It sticks and rolls in. It was huge for us.”
“It completely bricked. It was probably the ugliest shot I’ve ever taken,” Collins said. “Luckily it bounced in. I’ve never seen a shot like that but I’m happy with it.”
Collins might have been lucky to make that shot, but there is nothing lucky about his intense approach to the game or the results that came during Saturday’s win. Gonzaga’s first McDonald’s All-American to come out of high school, Collins was a bit of a late-bloomer during his high school career.
Collins actually came off the bench during his junior year of high school at Nevada powerhouse Bishop Gorman as two senior McDonald’s All-Americans, Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) and Chase Jeter (Duke), played in front of him. Gonzaga still recruited Collins as hard as possible despite his limited minutes during the high school season as they saw a guy who could develop.
“We didn’t know he was a one-and-done,” Lloyd said. “We thought this is a great program player for us who is a high-character kid who really wanted to develop in our system.”
“We didn’t recruit him because he was a McDonald’s All-American. We recruited him because he fit Gonzaga’s culture. We’re never going to veer from that path.”
While Gonzaga has been able to sustain consistent success by recruiting at a strong level, they’ve recently started to recruit at an elite level. Collins and Williams-Goss were both Burger Boys coming out of high school. That distinction is important because only two national champions in the last 40 years (Maryland in 2002 and UConn in 2014) didn’t have a McDonald’s All-American on the roster.
Now stocked with elite talent and an impressive rotation, the Bulldogs have all of the pieces they need to compete for a national championship on Monday night.
“Things just kind of fell together for us. You get Przemek to come back for a year with this team and he can play with Nigel. Zach Collins, who isn’t a backup, a lot of times he’s a pickup. He really picks us up and he can really play in these high-level games with his athleticism. And I think it’s honestly been the formula for the team that we are,” Lloyd said.
Regardless of Monday’s national-championship outcome, Collins is going to have an intriguing decision ahead of him in the next few weeks thanks to Saturday’s standout performance. There is already a “Collins” sitting in the first round of a lot of NBA mock drafts, but that would be standout Wake Forest sophomore center John Collins.
After Saturday’s game, adding another Collins to those mock drafts doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
“It’s really cool to see him get the success in this day and age when people aren’t patient,” Lloyd said. “I don’t know what the future holds for Zach. But I know if he stays the course and stays patient, he’ll have unlimited opportunities.”