SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a not-so-slight difference between the Pittsburgh and Gonzaga starting frontcourts, which include a 7-footer born outside of the United States and a foreign forward with versatility: Gonzaga’s duo is much better.
Two days after dispatching Steven Adams and Talib Zanna, Wichita State must deal with national player of the year candidate Kelly Olynyk and 6-foot-9 German power forward Elias Harris, who averaged 20 points in three West Coast Conference Tournament games.
The Shockers easily handled Adams, a hesitant freshman, and Zanna, who played with as much reluctance as his seemingly unmotivated teammates. Pittsburgh’s big men were expected to pose more of a challenge, but there will be no inaccurate evaluations of Gonzaga’s post players when WSU opposes them Saturday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. They’re as good as advertised.
There are some similarities to Creighton, whose center Gregory Echenique gave the Shockers trouble at times this season, but no team compares favorably to one featuring arguably the nation’s best player.
"I think we match up with them pretty well," Hall said. "They’re more skilled than Creighton’s big men at the (center) spot especially. We’ve just got to come ready to play because Harris and Olynyk can score."
Olynyk poses the greatest threat as a center who is comfortable playing near the perimeter on offense and defensively. Hall executed his plan to drive around Adams and force the Pitt center to guard him outside of the paint, but quickness and mid-range capabilities don’t present matchup problems against Olynyk.
Instead, Hall and WSU’s other post players will rely on their muscle to disrupt Olynyk, who averages 17.6 points in 26 minutes and shoots better than 64 percent. He scored 21 in Gonzaga’s second-round win over Southern but was agitated at times by the Jaguars’ physicality.
“He’s a tremendous athlete at 7 feet," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "He can get dunks in transition and off of offensive rebounds. So we’re going to have to guard him, put a body on him at all times and be there with help.... We’ll go 10 deep. I don’t know if they play 10 guys, but hopefully we can keep a fresh body on him at all times."
The Shockers got key minutes Thursday from Chadrack Lufile, but fellow big men Jake White and Ehimen Orukpe were more inconsistent.
To handle Olynyk and Harris, the Shockers will likely need significant defensive contributions from all of their post players. Orukpe’s height (7-foot) will serve him well, but he tends to overplay against screens and that could be dangerous against a team with quality perimeter shooters such as Gonzaga.
"We need the whole big-man corps to come ready to play," Hall said. "(Lufile), Ehimen — we just need everybody to play big."
Olynyk and Harris likely will, but they might come to play a different kind of game. WSU overwhelmed Pitt with toughness, an attribute not exhibited often by Gonzaga’s WCC opponents. The Shockers aren’t interested in equaling the Bulldogs’ west-coast appeal.
"You have to turn it into a dogfight," Hall said. "If you turn it into a pretty game, they’ll beat you in a pretty, finesse game. You want to try to muck things up down there and try to make it difficult for their post players. You’ve got to let them know from the jump that you’re not playing and you’re going to be physical with them."