The national championship may come down to one massive, sweaty battle

GLENDALE, Ariz. – If you have any fond remembrance of the days when men were men and centers were centers, you’ll love this national championship matchup between North Carolina and Gonzaga.

Specifically, the matchup between Przemek Karnowski and Kennedy Meeks, roughly 560 pounds of sexy paint power that will collide Monday night.

Mano a mano? More like rhino a rhino.

Gonzaga senior Karnowski is listed at 7 feet, 300 pounds – quite possibly making him the largest good player in college basketball since Shaquille O’Neal was at LSU 25 years ago. (As a kid in Poland, the guy the Zags call “Shemmie” used to watch YouTube videos of the NBA Shaq.)

North Carolina senior Meeks is listed at 6-foot-10, 260 pounds. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said that weight is down “50 or 60 pounds” from a couple of years ago.

These are very big men who will play very big roles, and play them in a very old-school way.

Long live the low post.

What we have here are two behemoths who embrace the grind of life in the lane. They are throwbacks to the back-to-the-basket days, before every big man wanted to be a shooting guard and roam the perimeter. They do most of their very productive work within 10 feet of the basket, and both specialize in the black arts of using their heft to shove opponents around.

Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski (L) vs. UNC's Kennedy Meeks will be a key matchup during Monday's national championship game. (Photo: AP/Getty)
Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski (L) vs. UNC’s Kennedy Meeks will be a key matchup during Monday’s title game. (Photo: AP/Getty)

And their coaches love them for it. Both Mark Few and Williams value the ability to pound the ball inside, and they have the guys to do something with it when they get it.

“Mark [Few] and I were talking about it … that all year long we’ve had to send our big guys out on the court to play against all those screen-and-pop guys that want to shoot 3-point shots,” Williams said. “How comfortable when you can tell Kennedy and Karnowski that you don’t have to do that this game.”

They’ve combined to play 291 college basketball games and attempted four 3-pointers – three by mad gunner Karnowski, one by Meeks. They know their office is the area near the rim, and they don’t try to be what they aren’t.

Meeks has been a dominant force this tournament, averaging 13.2 points and 11.8 rebounds. Karnowski’s production (and minutes) is slightly less, checking in at 10 points and four rebounds but also serving as a deft passer in the Zags’ inside-out offensive attack.

Despite their physical similarities, they have arrived at this place – their final college game – via very different paths.

Meeks grew up in Charlotte, 140 miles from Chapel Hill. His family very much wanted him to be a Tar Heel and was overjoyed when he chose the home-state school over Georgetown.

Karnowski grew up in Torun, Poland, 5,014 miles from Spokane. He’d followed college basketball for years, but when Gonzaga started recruiting him after seeing him play in the FIBA Under 17 World Championships in 2010, he had to find the school on Google to learn about it.

Meeks has been a four-year starter at Carolina, his productivity increasing as his weight decreased. Karnowski is coming off a redshirt year due to a back injury that caused him to miss all but five games last season.

“One day I was playing basketball,” Karnowski said. “The next, I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Meeks is giving up 40 pounds and several inches in beard length to Karnowski, but runs the floor better and has superior leaping ability. Meeks’ second jump, going after a putback of a missed shot, is deceptively quick. Karnowski possesses the better ball handling and passing skills.

Last time we had a Final Four matchup of true centers who could both play might have been 2007: Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert against Ohio State’s Greg Oden. And these guys are thicker than they were.

The stories from the Zags about collisions with Karnowski in practice and pickup ball are the stuff of legend. And bruises.

“He’s a wall of a man,” said 7-foot-1, 295-pound backup center Ryan Edwards. “There’s really no moving him.”

“Last year I drove to the hole and tried to go through his chest,” said forward Johnathan Williams, himself not a small man at 6-9, 228. “I wound up on the ground, and he was standing up. I was like, ‘That’s a bad idea.’ “

Said guard Jordan Mathews: “I drove into him once in September and my head was rattling. You see him down there and you just start doing that back dribble.”

Adding to the discomfort of combating Karnowski is the fact that, ahem, he tends to perspire a lot. When his body hits your body, you’re often left wearing a lot of his sweat.

“Slippery,” is how Edwards put it.

“I hate guarding him,” Williams said. “Once I get done with it, it’s like I was in a waterfall.”

Said freshman 7-footer Killian Tillie: “Coming out of breakfast even, he’s sweaty.”

But Karnowski might meet his match in sweat – and sweat equity – in Meeks.

“He can sweat,” said Carolina backup big man Tony Bradley. “Once he gets going, he’s a machine.”

Kennedy Meeks has been a force for North Carolina during this NCAA tournament. (Getty)
Kennedy Meeks has been a force for North Carolina during this NCAA tournament. (Getty)

It will be of great interest and import how much the officials allow these two large, sweaty men to trade blows in the paint. Both Carolina and Gonzaga have depth inside, but if either Meeks or Karnowski picks up two early fouls it could completely alter defensive strategy.

Both big men have at times felt victimized by the refs, being called for fouls by simply overpowering smaller centers. But some opposing coaches are quite convinced that Meeks and Karnowski are experts at hiding the ways they use their heft to foul without being called for it.

Karnowski has been known to use his belly and lower body defensively to dislodge opponents from the post. Meeks has been known to use his chest to go through opponents’ backs in search of offensive rebounds. These are tricks of the pachydermal trade, and we’ll see which rhino can get away with more.

Regardless of who wins, anyone who remembers when big men were big men in basketball should enjoy the low-post rumble Monday night. It doesn’t happen often in modern college basketball.

More Final Four coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Here’s the most crucial aspect of Monday’s UNC-Gonzaga title game
Phil Knight, Nike have ‘an interest’ in Lonzo Ball, but $1 billion is ‘a little steep’
How Grant Hill went from having ‘no clue’ to calling the Final Four
Gonzaga coach, 54, celebrates win with handstand