Blair Kerkhoff

Blair Kerkhoff: Sometimes hard to find and pronounce, Gonzaga on championship doorstep

When Przemek Karnowski, a native of Poland, was being recruited by Gonzaga, he thought it was a city around Washington, D.C.
When Przemek Karnowski, a native of Poland, was being recruited by Gonzaga, he thought it was a city around Washington, D.C. The Associated Press

This is the biggest weekend in the history of Gonzaga basketball, maybe the university, at least since the statue dedication of native son and classic crooner Bing Crosby almost four decades ago.

Beating South Carolina in the national semifinal advanced the Bulldogs to Monday’s grand stage, where North Carolina awaits.

Heady stuff for the Jesuit university that qualifies by West Coast Conference affiliation as a mid-major but has transformed itself competitively into a major power that owns a 37-1 record.

The Zags’ first NCAA Tournament appearance occurred in 1995, but it was four years later, when they reached the West Regional final before falling to Connecticut that the program entered the national consciousness.

Gonzaga has been a tournament regular since then — this marks their 19th straight NCAA appearance — and is the textbook definition of continuing to knock on opportunity’s door.

Now that the door has swung open with the program’s first Final Four experience, the chance to better know and understand Gonzaga has presented itself.

For starters, the pronunciation after “Gon” is “zag-a” not “zah-ga.” Some players from out of the area even have to learn this. Television talent certainly does.

Where is Gonzaga? Let 7-foot, 300-pound center and Poland native Przemek Karnowski help here. He and his family did a hard target search.

“When was getting recruiting offers, I started looking for what Gonzaga was,” Karnowski said. “I thought it was a city and it was around Washington, D.C.”

Karnowski and his family got a map of the United States and looked for cities around the nation’s capital and didn’t see one called Gonzaga.

“After about 20 minutes of hard searching, I went on the internet and found it’s in Spokane, and not in D.C. It’s on the West side.”

Of the U.S., in Washington specifically.

Guard Josh Perkins from Denver knew little of Gonzaga growing up in Denver. He paid attention to Connecticut, Colorado and Kansas. The Zags weren’t on TV much. But when he did see them, something caught his eye.

“They had some cool hoodies in warm-ups, I could picture myself in one of those,” Perkins said.

This is a good place to note that Gonzaga is first school from Washington to reach the Final Four since Elgin Baylor led Seattle University to the 1958 title game. The Zags are the first team from their conference to get this far since Bill Russell led San Francisco to the 1956 championship. The pride of a state and region is at stake against the Tar Heels.

Gonzaga doesn’t target many one-and-dones, although freshman center Zach Collins has generated plenty of buzz this season and had a 14-point, 13-rebound, six-block shot game against the Gamecocks on Saturday.

In perhaps the best measure of Gonzaga’s progress from a tournament regular to national title contender, Collins comes off the bench.

“Zach doesn’t get his name called out at the start of games, but he’s a starter to me,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

Gonzaga does recruit internationally, with a roster of players from Canada, France, Denmark and Japan in addition to Poland.

And the Zags played the transfer game as well as anybody in basketball this season. Starters Nigel Williams-Goss started his career at Washington. Jordan Mathews transferred from California. Johnathan Williams III played two seasons at Missouri.

Originally from Memphis, Gonzaga was a revelation to Williams in one sense.

“I never went to a lake before I got here,” said Williams, who has made trips across the state line in Idaho to Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Williams also said he was stunned to experience the impact of Zags basketball on the community. He can’t go anywhere without being stopped for an autograph or photo.

In that sense, Gonzaga basketball compares in culture to a Kansas or Kentucky or other blue bloods. Elsewhere, not so much.

“There are different ways to be successful,” Zags assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “You can recruit McDonald’s All-Americans, you can get one-and-dones. Or you can go get guys in Europe. Some of these guys are McDonald’s All-American talent.

“Then, when you sprinkle in the transfers and being forced to recruit good high school players and develop them, and they stay two, three, four years. It’s just a different model.”

A model that developed organically. Riches didn’t pour into football-less Gonzaga to help grow the program. Basketball had to win for the Bulldogs to gain some of the benefits some powers take for granted.

Money for the academic program, charter travel, private-plane hours for recruiting, increased salaries for assistants. Gonzaga’s first practice facility is now under construction.

“We’ve never front-loaded anything,” Lloyd said. “We’ve been rewarded for good work, which is the right way and really cool way to do it.”

After two decades of consistent winning and now reaching the final day of the season, no one would argue with Gonzaga’s path or formula. And on a night when the sports world will be watching the championship game, the pronunciation confusion should be cleared up.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff