SAN DIEGO — With only a smidge of hyperbole, Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few calls the NCAA collision with Arizona on Sunday night a matchup of “kind of the two marquee teams out West, yo-yo-ing back and forth the last 10 years.”
Programs like Washington and San Diego State might have quibbled by turns with that assessment, but however you parse it, the Zags and Wildcats get together in the final game of the 2014 round of 32, each hoping to stand a little taller than the other.
Cue up Kaleb Tarczewski and Przemek Karnowski, a delightful pairing of two Polish 7-footers, each of whom is a sophomore, shares his story readily, came to basketball relatively late, averages about 10 points and seven rebounds, and can’t find a good pierogi in either Tucson or Spokane.
Kaleb says Tar-ZOO-ski, Przemek says Tar-CHESS-ki, and they can settle their differences in the centerpiece confrontation of a game to see who moves on to Anaheim and the Sweet 16 this week.
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“Hope the referees actually let them play a little bit,” said Joseph Blair, a mid-’90s Wildcat who, as a 6-9, 265-pound grad assistant, bangs regularly with Tarczewski, schooling him on balance and footwork.
That would be nice, because the college game is often one of small teams trying to play big, or one team with a true giant in the middle misaligned with a 6-8 forward on the other side.
Not so in this one. Here’s what Tarczewski says he has to look forward to in Karnowski: “He’s a real estate guy. I think he’s close to 300 pounds. He does a really good job getting post position.”
The key difference, except for Tarczewski’s leaner 235 pounds, faceup jumper and superior free throws, is that his story is more American than Polish. He grew up in New Hampshire and thinks it’s two or three generations ago that his ancestors settled here.
His mom worked in construction for 15 years. She bought land, lived out of a pickup truck and saved enough money to build a log cabin — she and her crew. Kaleb lived there as a kid.
He spent three years at St. Mark’s Prep School in Massachusetts, where Arizona coach Sean Miller spirited him out to Arizona.
“I loved it,” Tarczewski said. “No snowdrifts. It’s sunny every morning.”
Tarczewski’s move west represented a leap, but Karnowski’s to Gonzaga was more daunting. He had spent his last year of high school eight hours away from his home in Torun, Poland, at an academy, responsible for his own meals and laundry, but his new college life — he picked the Zags over California and Duke — tested him.
“I thought I knew English,” he said, and it’s actually quite good. “The first two or three weeks, I was sitting in the corner. I don’t want to talk. I was shy.”
He was mostly a project in 2013, too heavy, playing behind All-American Kelly Olynyk.
“Last year, I had envisioned him playing maybe a bigger role,” said GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “This year, he’s been unbelievable for us.”
The game often seemed too fast for Karnowski (say the first name like SHEM-ek).
“I try to be perfect,” he said at midseason, “and it doesn’t always go like I think.”
Especially the free throws. While Tarczewski hits 76 percent, Karnowski’s are a coin flip at precisely 50 percent.
“One day,” he said, “they have to go in.”
A lefty, he began this year to show a right hand, and there have been times when he’s dominant with jump-hooks and duck-ins.
Locker-room culture quickly accepted him. This year, he lives with 6-foot walk-on guard Rem Bakamus, yielding a twosome better known to teammates as “Shrek and Donkey.”
Oh, about those pierogies (Polish dumplings, if you haven’t tuned into The Chew lately). Tarczewski settles for supermarkets to get his. Karnowski yearns for his grandma’s, made with strawberries.
Tarczewski and Karnowski. It ought to be spellbinding.
Or at least worthy of spell-check.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281