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Midnight hike helps unite vagabond Gonzaga team

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — For Gonzaga, the road to a national title started five months ago, in the middle of the night, on a dock near a secluded lake in northern Idaho.

Five of their eight rotation players didn’t play for last season’s Sweet 16 team, and a sixth — Przemek Karnowski — played six games before undergoing back surgery to remove staph from inside a bulging disc in his back. Camping trips aren’t the norm for the Bulldogs’ preseason ritual, but head coach Mark Few and strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight figured it would be a new way for this roster to get to know each other.

So they set out on a camping trip before the season started just north of Hayden Lake at Farragut State Park.

Most of the team bonded early in the trip over their pure, unfiltered hatred of camping and the outdoors. Some players puked after eating the food on the trip. Others struggled to pitch a tent or build a fire. Hiking and dealing with nature didn’t come very naturally for some of the roster that came from major cities. It was a team-building trip. There’s no better way to build a bond with your teammates than to vent over the things your coaching staff is making you do.

After finally getting over the outdoor obstacles that come with camping, late into the night, the decision was made to hike through the pitch black Idaho wilderness because what could go wrong? There were no coaches. The group’s outdoors expert leading the trip wasn’t with them. It was just the Bulldogs and the starry night as they talked about everything they wanted to do during the 2016-17 season.

“We walked, like, two miles at night with no lights or anything. We just all walked around,” Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams III said. “And we came to a dock. And we all just laid there and talked about what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish this year. A lot of individual goals, a lot of team goals. And our team goals were to win a national championship.

“It was pitch black. They have big bears out there and stuff. We didn’t care. We were just out there walking, building relationships that will last a lifetime.”

Gonzaga’s 2016-17 roster was uniquely built because they had a lot of transfers and true freshmen coming into the equation that didn’t play for them the previous season. Besides the talented newcomers, Karnowski was also given the additional year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson returned from last season’s Sweet 16 rotation, but transfers like Williams, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews were talented and experienced transfers coming from power-conference programs. Then there was the addition of freshmen big men like Zach Collins and Killian Tillie — players who weren’t expecting to compete with Karnowski for minutes since his additional year of eligibility came unexpectedly.

With so many new pieces entering the roster, and heated competitions for minutes at nearly every position, Gonzaga’s staff wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page before starting the journey of a long season.

So after class on a Friday afternoon, the team drove about an hour for the trip before returning back to campus by Sunday. Team-building exercises can certainly build camaraderie, but sometimes those sentiments don’t last beyond a few days. Gonzaga has taken the principles that they learned on the trip and used it over the course of the season when they’ve faced adversity. The trip has been brought up during locker-room talks as a reminder of everything Gonzaga has been through over the past few months.

Karnowski’s journey into the wilderness was another intriguing subplot. After dealing with the horrifying ordeal involving his back the previous season, the trip to Idaho was the first time Karnowski slept away from a normal bed in a controlled environment. Sleeping on a special bed that the team brought with to make sure his back was okay in the wilderness, Karnowski made it through the trip with no issues — a positive sign for his health and the upcoming season.

Gonzaga’s players made the outdoors excursion sound much tougher than it might have actually been, but they certainly took something from the trip that has helped propel them to the best season in school history.

“It’s always easy on something like that to come out of it and be good for two days or a week,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “But is that going to continue for a month? For two months? Throughout the season, especially when times get tough, and you have to harken back on it? And that’s what I thought was amazing with this group. They really were able to do that. And what they did on that trip has stuck with us for five months and 40 games. It’s been remarkable.”

Gonzaga has stayed together after the trip because each player on the roster was fixated on reaching this point in the season. Sacrifices needed to be made when it came to shots and minutes. Throughout the season, the Zags have made things work using different lineups and unique go-to players depending on the game. For a team full of new pieces, the Zags gelled as quickly as they could have possibly hoped.

Part of the reason is the “36 hours of hell” (as one player put it) that helped Gonzaga grow together before things really got tough during the season.

“I just think we give it all for each other. The message before the season was when we got the pieces, that we have to sacrifice a lot to get to where we want to go,” Perkins said. “I think we gave up a lot for our common goal and it paid off for us.”

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.

Report: Nike, Adidas and Under Armour all pass on sponsoring Lonzo Ball

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Lonzo Ball will enter his rookie season in the NBA without a sponsorship deal from Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, only his family’s Big Baller Brand apparel.

That, according to a report from ESPN, is due to his father LaVar’s insistence that Lonzo not sign with one of the three major apparel companies unless they opted to sign a licensing deal for Big Baller Brand merchandise instead of outfitting Lonzo with their own gear.

“We’ve said from the beginning, we aren’t looking for an endorsement deal,” LaVar told ESPN. “We’re looking for co-branding, a true partner. But they’re not ready for that because they’re not used to that model. But hey, the taxi industry wasn’t ready for Uber, either.”

LaVar had been representing his son in the negotiations, and is now expected to reach out to other shoe brands, including Chinese apparel companies like Li-Nang.

Big Baller Brand is a startup apparel company launched by LaVar Ball. They sell t-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, with most of their products costing at least $50.

Lonzo declared for the NBA Draft after an all-american season that saw him and the UCLA Bruins flame out of the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16. UCLA lost to Kentucky in that game, and Lonzo had a quiet night while his point guard counterpart, De’Aaron Fox, went off for 39 points.

Lonzo is a likely top three pick in the NBA Draft and, potentially, could still end up going No. 1. He has two younger brothers as well. LiAngelo will be a freshman with the Bruins next season while LaMelo just finished his sophomore season in high school. Both will attend UCLA.