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.”