NCAA tournament site may push Duke and Gonzaga to play more in paint

At NCAA tournament, stadium sites may affect play of Duke-Gonzaga in South, Louisville-Michigan State in East

Duke forward Justise Winslow doesn't understand the odium being directed at NRG Stadium, next year's Final Four host and the site of Sunday's South Regional final between No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Gonzaga.

Winslow, a Houston native, made three of four three-pointers in the stadium in Duke's win over Utah on Friday.

"Personally," he said, "I don't have any complaints about playing in NRG. I would love to play here as many games as I can."

For everyone else, NRG Stadium has acted as a black hole, swallowing jump shots in scores. By now, its track record for producing ugly basketball is hard to ignore.

Gonzaga, which made 10 of 16 three-pointers against Iowa, made just one against UCLA on Friday. Against Utah, Winslow was the only Duke player to make a three-pointer.

Then there was the 2011 championship game between Connecticut and Butler, which the Huskies won, 53-41. Butler shot 18.8% for the game.

Basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy examined the 15 games played in NRG Stadium since it opened in 2002 and found that teams are shooting 32.2% on three-pointers, well below what he'd expect. He concluded the shooting is either "the result of cataclysmic randomness" or, more likely, the stadium has a real chilling effect on shooters.

That could put extra emphasis on Duke's and Gonzaga's play in the paint, where both teams excel offensively.

Duke center Jahlil Okafor, just a freshman, has feet like a ballet dancer and can move the ball quickly from the inside out. When he is in a rhythm on offensive, it is almost poetic.

"He's mobile, agile," Przemek Karnowski said. "He's long, strong."

Karnowski would know. He has to guard him. At 7-feet-1 and 288 pounds, Karnowski is one of the most massive players left in the tournament. Okafor said he expects a physical battle.

But Karnowski is also surprisingly nimble. Against UCLA on Friday, he wheeled a behind-the-back pass to Domantas Sabonis for an easy score.

"You don't see that very often," UCLA point guard Bryce Alford marveled afterward.

When the Bulldogs, who have never made a Final Four, had their shooting go cold against UCLA, they had an easy response. The guards just fed the ball inside.

Karnowski scored 18 points and made eight of 11 shots. Sabonis scored 12.

The pair, guard Gary Bell Jr. said, "are a force like that. You are kind of stupid not to give them the ball."

The teams in the East Regional have to deal with their own big stadium. No. 4 Louisville and No. 7 Michigan State will play on Sunday at the Carrier Dome, where Syracuse plays its football and basketball games.

That the teams made it this far has come as a shock to almost everyone. Even Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said he was surprised.

"A lot of years I'm not, but this year, I guess I am, to be honest with you," Izzo said.

Izzo has admitted this team lacks the talent of past Michigan State teams. And Louisville seemed doomed when it dismissed guard Chris Jones in late February.

But Izzo and Louisville Coach Rick Pitino seem to always hang around this time of year. Pitino is now 12-1 in regional semifinal games. Izzo has more Final Four appearances (six) than losses in the tournament's first weekend (five).

It shouldn't be a surprise they're here again. But, even to the veteran coaches, it is.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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