Przemek Karnowski steadying presence for top-ranked Gonzaga

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) When No. 1 Gonzaga tries to complete an undefeated regular season on Saturday, perhaps no player will be more valuable than center Przemek Karnowski.

The 7-foot-1, 300-pound senior is a nearly unstoppable force from close range. He is averaging 12.8 points per game, second on the team, and leads the West Coast Conference with a 68 percent shooting percentage in league play. He adds 5.8 rebounds and a couple of assists per game.

Yet a year ago, Karnowski's career was in jeopardy because of bulging discs in his back.

''When you consider that this time last year we didn't know if he would play basketball ever again,'' coach Mark Few said. ''We didn't know if he was going to walk normal or function normal, because his back was so bad.''

''It's a great story of redemption,'' Few said. ''A great story of just hanging with it and it couldn't have happened to a better guy.''

No player has won more games in a Gonzaga uniform than the fifth-year senior from Poland. He is 129-13 heading into Saturday's season finale against BYU.

Karnowski is threatening former Duke player Shane Battier's Division I record of 133 career wins. That will require Gonzaga to win games in the West Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments.

Shouldn't be a problem.

The Zags have won the WCC title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament all five of his seasons.

''This program is about winning,'' said Karnowski, whose first name is pronounced ''Pshimik'' and who goes by ''Shem.'' ''That's really important.''

Gonzaga (29-0, 17-0 West Coast) is seeking to become the first team since Kentucky in 2014-15 to go undefeated in the regular season.

The Zags got here by having one of the nation's top offenses, averaging 85 points per game, and they can score from anywhere on the floor.

Karnowski is lethal in front of the basket, scoring on a variety of post shots, hook shots and short jumpers.

He is there when the Bulldogs absolutely need a basket. Karnowski scored 15 points in the first half against No. 20 Saint Mary's on Feb. 11 and 13 points in the first half against San Francisco on Feb. 16 to spark the Zags to victory in a couple of key games where the team had trouble getting started.

''Best center in the country, it's as simple as that,'' leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss said. ''When you play him one-on-one, I don't think anyone in the country can guard him.''

Front court mate Johnathan Williams said Karnowski is an intelligent player.

''He's a great passer,'' Williams said. ''He makes the right reads. He's easy to play with.''

Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd discovered Karnowski when he was scouting guard Kevin Pangos in Europe. The center narrowed his choices to California and Gonzaga, and reunited with Pangos as a member of the Zags.

As a freshman in 2012-13, he played behind lottery pick Kelly Olynyk, getting into 34 games. That was the first and only other season in which the Bulldogs reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 .

He started as a sophomore and junior. Big things were expected his fourth year but he fell hard in practice and five games into last season he had to quit because of bulging discs.

It wasn't certain he would be able to return from surgery.

''I couldn't bend. I couldn't lift,'' said Karnowski, who lost nearly 50 pounds after surgery.

But his recovery was smoother than expected. ''I play with no pain,'' Karnowski said.

He flirted with turning pro, but decided to return for a final season when the NCAA granted him a medical redshirt.

He is thriving this year as part of an efficient front court in which he shares time with Johnathan Williams, Zach Collins and Killian Tillie.

''He's playing the best basketball of his career right now,'' Few said.

Certainly there are detractors who don't buy Gonzaga's gaudy record, who note the team plays in the relatively weak WCC.

''Yeah, people are going to talk,'' Karnowski said. ''We are winning right now and they still talk bad. I don't really listen to that.''

Karnowski acknowledged this season has exceeded his expectations.

''I didn't think we would be undefeated, to be honest,'' he said. ''I'm happy I didn't walk last year.''

---

AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this story.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.