A year ago during Gonzaga’s run in the postseason, Przemek Karnowski filled a less pivotal role in a much fancier outfit.
He was the team’s giant, dressed-in-a-suit, ball boy, feeding teammates passes before games in both the West Coast Conference and NCAA Division I tournaments.
The 7-foot-1, 300-pounder from Poland is a walking “miracle,” says Zags coach Mark Few.
Sidelined by a lower-back injury that not only required surgery, but jeopardized his playing career, Karnowski has returned this season better than ever.
The all-WCC center averaged 12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 23.1 minutes per game this season.
And in last week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas, Karnowski upped his production — 14.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.3 blocks in nearly 30 minutes per game in earning a spot on the all-tournament team.
Karnowski will certainly be a focal point as the top-seeded Zags open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday against South Dakota State in Salt Lake City.
“I remember just being with the team at the NCAA Tournament last year,” Karnowski said. “That was basically my second trip with the team after the surgery. … I wasn’t able to help them on the floor, but I tried to help them as a mental leader.
“I’m just happy that we’re back.”
Karnowski’s troubles all started after a hard foul in a Zags’ practice in early December of 2015.
His lower back tightened up so severely, it was difficult for Karnowski to walk, let alone jog up and down the basketball court.
He tried everything to alleviate the discomfort: Stretching, massage, chiropractic treatment and acupuncture. Nothing worked.
Finally, he opted for surgery in Spokane to repair bulging discs on Dec. 31, ending his season after five games.
Nobody was certain what was next for Gonzaga’s big man.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play basketball,” Karnowski said.
After surgery, the pain subsided dramatically. He began feeling optimistic he would play basketball again, but did not know where his next stop would be — at Gonzaga or professionally in Europe?
In May, he announced he was going to return to the Zags as a redshirt senior.
“I still needed to see my doctors over here … (for) my rehab process and all that kind of stuff, so it was just better for me to kind of stick around here,” Karnowski said.
It is one thing to plan a return to basketball. It’s another thing to show Few and the staff that he could be an impact player again.
“Hey, I didn’t expect him to play,” Few said. “Probably in late July … once he started running and jumping, and he was able to do that, we were like, ‘Well, OK.’
“But he had to get hit and he had to figure out if guys could hit the back and he’d be OK.”
Few remembers the day he stopped worrying about Karnowski’s injury status for good.
It was a game in November against San Diego State. Karnowski dove on the floor for a loose ball, and two guys jumped on his back to join the scramble.
All went quiet in the McCarthey Athletic Center — until Karnowski got to his feet, smiled and signaled he was OK.
“There wasn’t any aftereffect or anything,” Few said. “He subsequently has had some falls since then, and he just pops right back up. It’s kind of an amazing deal.”
One year later, Karnowski is pain-free and motivated. He also had 131 wins for his Gonzaga career, a program record.
And if the Zags can at least reach the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament, he would tie Duke’s Shane Battier (133 wins) for the most all-time career victories by one player.
“Being one of his closest friends, to be honest, I did not expect him to come back and be this strong this season,” Gonzaga guard Silas Melson said. “But he’s been one of our best players this year. He has been a force in the post. He is a defensive anchor. He does a lot of this group.”
Corespondent Andy Buhler contributed to this report