| March 24, 2018

Column: The Northwest’s Gem

September 29, 2016

Gonzaga basketball is a wintertime staple in living rooms across the Pacific Northwest — my family’s included.

Matt Bouldin was my first crush. Mike Hart taught me a jump ball is just as important as a perfect jumper. My little sister met Rob Sacre at a Subway in Kellogg, Idaho. The story is immortalized among my extended family, told and retold every year.

It seems silly — immortalizing college kids for being good at a game — but my childhood idols were Courtney Vandersloot and Josh Heytvelt for good reason. The romanticizing of Gonzaga basketball is totally justified, nostalgic snappiness aside.

Gonzaga’s most recent tally of enrolled students just misses the 7,500 mark. It’s a tiny, Catholic school with a weird name, tucked into the busy streets of Spokane.

Yet, the name has gained national recognition, thanks to 18 consecutive appearances in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Coach Mark Few is the winningest active head coach, leading all others with a .80 winning percentage.

The team has been a fixture in the national rankings over the last few years and proven itself against the likes of UCLA in recent national tournaments.

Gonzaga is a Cinderella story, an underdog to get behind, and this is all said without mentioning the women’s basketball program, which has its own need for notoriety.

There are many reasons Spike the Bulldog graces the television screens of young and old basketball enthusiasts all winter long. If I’m not careful this column will become a love letter to Few, and no one wants that.

The Zags’ first tip-off of the 2016-2017 season is just over a month away. Now is a time for predictions, analysis and statistic nitpicking. That said, there are several reasons to keep an eye on Gonzaga’s men this coming season.

Perhaps the biggest reason — both physically and metaphorically — is center Przemek Karnowski. The Polish giant was sidelined during the 2015-16 season, his senior season, due to back issues. He took a medical redshirt year and had surgery in December.

There was speculation Karnowski would move on to the NBA, instead of staying at Gonzaga. Lucky for diehard fans, Karnowski is sticking around. There is a lot of innate value in a 7’1” 300-pound presence under the basket.

But Karnowski’s worth doesn’t stop at his own ability to score or defend — his presence draws defenders away from the arc, expanding the team’s in-and-out scoring opportunities. Open threes lead to open post-ups and vice versa. The cycle never stops.

In short, it will be good to have Karnowski’s always-improving presence on the court where the effects won’t go unnoticed.

It was also announced in May the West Coast Conference tournament will remain in Paradise, Nevada, at the Orleans Arena, for the next three seasons.

In the last eight years the tournament has been held there, Gonzaga has been in every tournament championship game and won six of those appearances. I’m not calling superstition here, but why ruin a good thing?

A total of 15 Zag games are guaranteed to be broadcast on ESPN networks during the upcoming season, so it’s the perfect time to hop on the bandwagon. Before long, people won’t be calling Gonzaga a Cinderella story or an underdog. The program has simply proven itself for too long as a national contender to be Cinderella anymore.

With a centerpiece like Karnowski and a legacy of excellence behind it, the 2016-2017 Gonzaga men’s basketball team will be one to watch.

Lyndsie Kiebert can be reached at arg-sports@uidaho.edu or on Twitter @lyndsie_kiebert

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