Northwestern preps for big dance with big dude Przemek Karnowski
SALT LAKE CITY — Just how large is Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski? Let’s put it this way: He’s large enough to offer a 7-foot, 300-pound man his hand-me-downs.
And large enough, it seems, not even to pretend to care about Northwestern’s feel-good NCAA tournament story.
‘‘I don’t really care,’’ he said, pulling off perhaps the world’s most gigantic sock at his locker after the Zags’ practice Friday. ‘‘We’ll play against any team. Whatever story they have, we’re going to play our game.’’
To the naked eye, Gonzaga’s game appears to be not losing. The No. 1 seed in the West Regional successfully has executed that strategy in 33 of 34 outings this season. Remember that if the 7-1 Karnowski, a senior from Poland, rag-dolls Northwestern’s undersized front line in a second-round matchup Saturday.
Also, remember this: The man-mountain might not be standing if it weren’t for a Northwestern graduate. He missed all but five games of his sophomore season because of unbearable pain in his lower back. He couldn’t work out and hardly could bend over. But Dr. John Shuster of Spokane, Washington, home of the Zags, performed the surgery that saved Karnowski’s career.
Shuster texted Karnowski early Friday and asked which team he was supposed to root for.
‘‘Easy answer,’’ Karnowski said. ‘‘Your guy from Gonzaga.’’
Strangers in the night
It wasn’t so long ago that the average college basketball fan knew nothing about Gonzaga. Before 1999 — when the Zags went on a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight — some in Chicago might have recalled the name of the school from 16 years earlier, when future NBA great John Stockton led a shocking upset of then-powerhouse DePaul.
Now the Zags are in their 19th consecutive NCAA tourney, yet they still aren’t familiar to quite everyone. In a first-round victory Thursday, a South Dakota State player asked guard Silas Melson what state the school is in.
Which begs the question: Just what did these Zags know about Big Dance greenhorn Northwestern before Thursday?
‘‘I knew they were in a good conference,’’ Karnowski said. ‘‘I’ve probably seen a couple of games.’’
Sure you have, big fella. Sure you have.
‘‘I’ve kind of followed them since the buzzer-beater against Michigan [on March 1],’’ senior guard Jordan Matthews said. ‘‘I didn’t realize they have, like, a huge celebrity fan base. Now all the sudden everybody’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I went to school there.’ ’’
With the Gonzaga-Northwestern matchup set, Melson and fellow junior Dustin Triano sat in their hotel room and realized neither knew where their opponent’s school is located. Fortunately, Triano had access to one of those Google machines.
‘‘He was like, ‘I think it’s in Chicago,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’ ’’ Melson said. ‘‘I didn’t know anything about Northwestern, honestly.’’
Could’ve been a big shot
So much of the talk since Northwestern’s victory against Vanderbilt has been about the gaffe committed by the Commodores’ Matthew Fisher-Davis, who purposely fouled Bryant McIntosh in the waning moments, even though Fisher-Davis’ team was leading by a point.
No doubt, Vandy blew it. But the Wildcats did a lot of things right in the first NCAA tournament game in school history.
‘‘Yeah, it does give us extra motivation that everyone wants to talk about the foul,’’ senior forward Sanjay Lumpkin said. ‘‘Everyone wants to talk about the foul, but they don’t want to talk about the plays we made down the stretch.’’
The foul happened with 15 seconds left. There was plenty of time for McIntosh or a teammate to make a heroic play.
‘‘There’s no question in my mind that B-Mac would’ve went down and scored,’’ Lumpkin said.
Sophomore center Dererk Pardon said McIntosh would have made a pull-up jumper.
‘‘I would’ve [shot] a floater,’’ McIntosh corrected.
Either way, the Wildcats’ destiny would’ve been in their own hands.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.