With a non-conference schedule that included, with one to go, Pittsburgh (for one half), Washington, Texas A&M, Washington State, Arizona, UCLA and Tennessee, no team in the West Coast Conference is more prepared for the start of league play than Gonzaga, whose 7-3 record includes losses to A&M, Arizona and UCLA.
The Zags wrap up their non-conference schedule with a home game against Tennessee on Sunday night, followed two days later with their WCC opener against Pepperdine in Spokane.
“It’s always been the approach here to play the toughest preseason schedule you can. That’s not new,’’ Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels said. “It’s always been good for us going into conference. It definitely helps you grow. Games like that give you confidence going further.’’
The going is now tougher for Gonzaga with senior center Przemek Karnowski having missed the last five games with a troublesome back condition that has not gotten better. At 7-foot-1 and 290 pounds, Karnowski represents a very big loss for the Zags, much more than the 8.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 24.8 minutes he was averaging at the time his back went south on him.
“We miss his experience,’’ Daniels said. “You’re able to guard the post with one guy. His experience allowed you to do things. He takes up so much space in the post. He’s a smart, intuitive young man and you miss that.’’
To fill the void, Gonzaga is calling upon a player with the exact same dimensions as Karnowski in redshirt sophomore Ryan Edwards, who is also 7-1 and 290 pounds. Edwards, who would be on the bench if Karnowski was healthy, will likely see his average of 7.1 minutes per game grow as the season progresses, along with his modest stats of 2.5 points and 1.8 rebounds an outing.
“I’m really excited about it,’’ Edwards said of his increased playing time. “It gives me more experience, it gives me more time to show the coaches I am ready to play. My confidence level is pretty good. I never knew how I’d play against top teams like Arizona and UCLA. Once I got in there I realized I can play with them. I never really played a lot of big games before. It’s nice to know I can play with those guys.’’
It’s fair to say Edwards is one of the biggest things to ever come out of Kalispell, Mt. With his dimensions, it’s fair to say the only things bigger than him in Montana are the majestic Grand Tetons. It’s also fair to say the level of competition he faced in high school did not necessarily prepare him for top Division I basketball.
“It’s a whole new transition,’’ he said. “I’m not used to playing against people my size or (people) who are a whole lot better. It’s my third year (in the Gonzaga program). I feel I’m adjusting pretty well.’’
Asked what skills he brings to the game, Edwards said, “I’m a good low-post scorer. I can go either way with the hook. I have a 15-foot jumper and I get up and down the court pretty good. Being a 7-footer, I’m a pretty big presence down low.’’
The Zags had a good rotation on the front line going earlier in the season when Karnowski was on the court. Coach Mark Few settled on starting Karnowski and Kyle Wiltjer and bringing Domantas Sabonis off the bench in order to keep all three relatively fresh. That’s changed now. Sabonis’ minutes have increased to nearly 28 per game, while Wiltjer’s have stayed pretty constant at 32.7.
“Fatigue is probably a factor late in games,’’ Daniels said. “Some guys are playing 10 extra minutes. It’s one thing to say you’re going to play 35 minutes but it’s another to (actually) play 35.’’
At Gonzaga, Daniels works with the big men, making Edwards his special project at the moment. Daniels said he wants his 7-foot soph to work on rebounding and on staying out of foul trouble. Before Karnowski was sidelined, one of Edwards’ jobs was to come in and give a few fouls. That won’t work now.
“I want to keep him in a positive mindset and stay out of foul trouble,’’ Daniels said. “Being a big guy, he’s always going to get cheap fouls. He’s part of the game plan now. He’s playing significant minutes. Those are all new adjustments he’s getting better at every game.’’
When the season started, Edwards was the 10th man on the team. Now he’s up to six or seven as circumstances have changed.
“I’m not going to be able to put up the same numbers as Przemek,’’ Edwards said. “It’s going to be different having a guy who’s been a starter for three years not being in there. My role is to get as many rebounds as I can and score when possible. Be a solid player and don’t try to do too much. I’m really excited about it.’’
Kok, as in rejected!
When I interviewed San Diego’s Jito Kok last season, he more or less agreed that his Dutch surname rhymes with “block.’’ As the WCC’s preeminent rejecter of shots, that’s important: Kok, as in block. The 6-foot-9 senior from The Netherlands broke his own school record of eight with nine blocked shots against UC Davis on Tuesday. Kok already holds San Diego records for career and season blocked shots.
In addition to his get-that-weak-stuff-out-of-here prowess, Kok is also the conference’s best tweeter. Check out this thoughtful and whimsical student-athlete @JitoKok.
Those Moraga marksmen
Saint Mary’s defeated Cal Poly 93-63 earlier this week to run its record to 7-1 (now 8-1 after downing Southern Utah) but that’s not the story. It’s how the Gaels accomplished their 30-point victory that’s significant. They nailed a school-record 19 three-point shots (on 31 attempts) to break their program record of 17 at Pepperdine in 2008.
Individually, Calvin Hermanson was the big scorer with a career-high 23 points, including five treys.
“We got into a good rhythm, played great offensively, played great defensively and got a great team win,’’ he said.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.