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South Carolina’s Final Four run finally allowed us to see the real Frank Martin

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Frank Martin is not the man you thought he was, and you know that now.

He’s a screamer from the Bobby Huggins coaching tree, better known for the intensity of his bone-chilling stares and facially-contorting sideline meltdowns than his ability as a basketball coach.

He’s as tough as they come.

On the court.

“The perception of Frank is totally the opposite of what he is as a person,” said Matt Figger, who has spent the last 10 years working for Martin and the last 22 years as a friend of his. That’s not uncommon for Martin. It’s not easy to get let in, but when you become a part of his life, you’re a part of his life forever. “He’s kind, he’s loving. He embraces love and people. His kids, his family, his players. That’s who he is. His players are family to him. He treats every one of these guys like they’re his sons.”

In South Carolina’s season-ending, 77-73 loss to Gonzaga in the first semifinal of Saturday’s Final Four action, we all got a glimpse of just how crazy he can be. After freshman point guard Rakym Felder took a terrible three in transition in the first half, Martin threw a haymaker at the air, spinning himself 360 degrees before nearly making it to the three-point line to light into Felder.

In the second half, Martin lit into his star guard, Sindarius Thornwell, who had spent the week battling a virus and the rest of the NCAA tournament playing completely out of his mind.

“How bad is Sindarius Thornwell?” Martin screamed at his bench, according to CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, before turning to Thornwell himself and asking, not all that kindly, “How bad are you today?”

Interactions like that happen a half-dozen times a game when Martin is stalking the sidelines, but they work for him. Thornwell had five points on the night when that happened. He finished with 15 points, as South Carolina erased a 14-point second half lead with a 16-0 run, losing by four in a game they had a chance to tie on their final possession.

His guys respond to him because they know who he is and how much he cares for them off the floor.

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

“We learned so much from him every day. Every day he instills that character issue that you’re talking about in his players, on and off the court,” P.J. Dozier said. “He teaches so many life lessons that you can also reflect back on basketball and use it towards basketball and everyday life.”

“That’s the great thing about this guy, that he’ll help you grow as a basketball player and as a person at the same time, without you even really realizing it. So he’s been doing that all year for us. And we’re just thankful for it.”

That’s the man that we’ve gotten to see over the course of the last two weeks. There was a Sportscenter feature showcasing his mild-mannered home life consisting of helping his kids with their math homework and checking off his honey-do list. There was his powerful press conference thanking his mother after the Gamecocks qualified for the Final Four. There was the tender moment where Martin and his mom both cried amid embrace on the Madison Square Garden floor, minutes before he cut down the nets.

And then there was Martin, his dream season, a Final Four run he may never be able to replicate, finally having come to an end, on the dais in tears as he said goodbye to his senior class.

“There’s something powerful when you impact others. And what these kids have done is pretty special,” Martin said. “When you get people to travel across the country by the masses because they believe in what you do, it’s powerful stuff. And they’ve impacted our community in an unbelievable way, which is worth so much more than the score of a game.”

“It’s what it’s all about. These kids are great role models. There’s a lot of young kids that want to be the next Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie, and I don’t get to coach them anymore, but they’re part of my life forever.”

That’s the Frank Martin that the country got to know during this run. That’s the Frank Martin that went viral over and over again. That’s the man that every one of his friends, people that would give him the shirt off their back because they know he would do the same for them, have known is the real Frank Martin.

Regardless of what he looks like on the sideline.

Final Four Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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It’s finally here.

Six days after the Final Four was set, things will kick off here in Phoenix on Saturday night.

Let’s take a look at the two games:

No. 1 GONZAGA (-7) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 6:09 p.m., CBS: Gonzaga is the heavy favorite in Saturday’s opener, and rightfully so, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that South Carolina will give them a fight, not the least of which is the fact that the Gamecocks are just so good and so disruptive defensively. The Gamecocks don’t play the same way that West Virginia does — their pressure exists in the half-court where West Virginia plays in the full court — but they do the same things, overplaying every passing lane and daring an opponent’s play makers to be able to beat their defenders off the bounce. To put it far too simply, Frank Martin bets on the fact that his players, defensively, are better.

And the Zags, as good as they are and as great of a year as Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins have had, don’t really have guards on their roster that are great in one-on-one situations like that, particularly against defenders that are more athletic than them. Take West Virginia: Perkins was invisible and Willaims-Goss played about as poorly as he is capable of playing.

Gonzaga has an incredible size advantage over South Carolina, one that Mark Few should be able to capitalize on, but I fully expect the Gamecocks to muck this game up. The Zags should be just fine playing in a game like that — they are, after all, the nation’s best defense — which is why the key for South Carolina is going to be whether or not Sindarius Thornwell can take advantage of the fact that Gonzaga doesn’t really have anyone that can guard him. South Carolina is going to struggle to score, but if they can run things through the Thornwell, they should be able to score enough to keep this thing close.

PREDICTION: South Carolina (+7)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-4.5) vs. No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., CBS: The first question that has to be answered here is whether or not Joel Berry II is actually healthy. He said he was 85 percent on Thursday as he battles a pair of injured ankles, and that will be critical to a UNC team that relies so much on him. As Berry goes, so goes UNC, and if he’s at all limited in tonight’s nightcap, it will be a brutal blow for the Tar Heels.

But it won’t change the fact that Roy Williams’ club has so much more size in the paint than the Ducks. Oregon plays small-ball. Without Chris Boucher available, they’ve relied even more heavily on a lineup that features Dillon Brooks — who is more of a shooting guard than anything else — at the four. It’s lethal offensively when hit creates mismatches. But it also leaves Oregon susceptible to teams with a bigger front court, and North Carolina’s front court is as big as anyone’s. Can Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks force Oregon to play big, or will UNC, who is the best offensive rebounding team in the country, be forced to play a smaller lineup to defend Brooks?

I would expect Oregon to spend quite a bit of time in a zone as a result, which means that the Tar Heels are going to have to make perimeter jumpers on Saturday. If they’re going down, and the Heels are getting to the offensive glass, it could be a long day for Oregon.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (-4.5)

Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski overcame staph infection in a bulging disk that threatened his life

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — He’s the second-leading scorer and rebounder for Gonzaga, a 7-foot-1 rim protector who the Zags run offense through that doubles as the most important player on the roster not named Nigel Williams-Goss.

And 15 months ago that there were doubts about whether or not Karnowski would be able to walk again, whether or not he would be able to keep his left leg.

It all started on Dec. 1st of 2015. During a practice the day before Gonzaga was scheduled to play Washington State. Karnowski was knocked off balance while in the air and landed squarely on his back. He ended up sitting out the game against the Cougars, and within days, it got to the point that he was bedridden, struggling to fold his frame into the shower, let alone get into a car or walk around campus and go to class.

“It was mostly my lower back, maybe a little bit going to my legs, but basically any movement that made my disc have pressure was painful,” Karnowski said. “I don’t wish any of that happen to my worst enemy, it was that kind of pain.”

The staff initially thought that Karnowski would miss a week or two, certainly on schedule to make it back before the end of the season, but Karnowski kept getting worse.

“It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “He’s dropping a bunch of weight and profusely sweating in his bedroom. It’s bizarre. They do another test a couple weeks later, another MRI, and the doctor came out and was like, ‘This can’t even be the same guy. From two weeks ago until now, how is this so different?'”

Turns out, ‘Przemmy’ had a staph infection.

In his back.

“Nobody knew,” Lloyd said. “He had a staph infection inside a bulged disc. The staph ate through the disc, and it looked like [an] oyster, that’s what the disc looked like. It was totally fried. Gone. That’s what was causing the illness, the weight loss.”

The medical staff discovered the staph infection when Karnowski showed them an abscess that had developed on his left calf. By the time the Gonzaga team doctor got a glimpse of it, the abscess was 10 centimeters long, three centimeters wide, four centimeters deep and hot to the touch.

“It was a nasty puss pocket,” Lloyd said.

It was staph.

The scar on Karnowski’s leg. (Rob Dauster/NBC Sports)

That’s when they knew that Karnowski needed surgery, and quickly. Within a day, Karnowski was going under the knife. By the time the surgery was done, Karnowski was down from 310 pounds to 238 pounds, including the two titanium plates that are now fused to his spine. The concern for Karnowski was no longer whether or not he would be back before the end of the season. Not only was his basketball career potentially over, the presence of staph meant that Karnowski could lose his leg, if not his life.

“Obviously it wasn’t the most fun time of my life,” Karnowski said.

The surgery went as well as could have been hoped, but that was only the start of the battle.

Karnowski had lost more than 70 pounds. He was bedridden for a month before he underwent invasive surgery on his back.

“He went on a nine month deal of heavy antibiotics,” Lloyd said. “He was literally on an IV bag for four months, carrying around an IV bag. They had a nurse come to his house and do fluid stuff with him. They were pumping antibiotics directly into him.”

By the time Karnowski was ready to start rehab, it was still unclear whether or not he would be able to continue his basketball career.

“The doctor was confident,” Lloyd said. “No guarantees, this isn’t normal, but he said the stuff I put in him, that ain’t gonna go wrong. Those brackets, they’re titanium. It’s how the rest of his body responds.”

And that’s where things got tricky.

“There really isn’t a protocol for a guy that’s 300 pounds and plays this level of basketball with metal plates in his back,” athletic trainer Travis Knight said. “There wasn’t a precedence.”

The process started with rehab on one or two days a week, whatever Karnowski was able to handle.

“We were just cautiously adding another thing each week and see if there’s a set back,” Knight said. “‘Rate your soreness, rate your back’. It’s OK if his soreness is a 6 or a 7 as long as his back is a 3 or a 4.”

From there, the next step was to slowly build up Karnowski’s core strength and flexibility, doing things as simple as re-teaching him how to stand up and pick things up off the ground. Karnowski is big enough that he didn’t need to use weight to start building strength — “If he’s doing a body weight exercise, that’s like other guys doing a crazy amount of weight,” Knight said — but he had to start from the beginning when it came to the form and technique on those lifts.

“He relearned how to lift better than he ever did before, because he couldn’t take those things for granted anymore,” Knight said. “When he learned how to stabilize, now all the other movements he made were better. then we got into jumping, jump rope and running, it was about two months for that.”

Eventually, Karnowski turned a corner no one expected him to. In June, he made a trip to the doctor who told him that not only could he start running and jumping, but he was cleared to play 5-on-5 if he needed to play 5-on-5.

That created another obstacle for Karnowski to work through: trusting his body. Would he still be willing to do box jumps? Would he still be willing to battle for position or dive on the floor for a loose ball?

“It took a while to trust my body because it’s been such a long surgery and a lot of stuff that impacted my body,” Karnowski said.

But he got there.

“He wasn’t going to be afraid of this thing. It wasn’t going to hold him back, he was going to go for it,” Knight said.

And it didn’t.

By October, Karnowski was going full court. By opening night, he was playing in college basketball games. Today, he’s prepping to play in the Final Four by notching 12.2 points and 5.8 boards while averaging 23 minutes a night.

In less then a year, he went from possibly losing his leg to starting at center for a team with a real shot to win a national title.

“What he went through last year, with his back injury where we didn’t think he was ever going to walk again normally and just function, I mean, getting in and out of a car and doing things like that, to now moving and playing the way he is?”

“It’s a miracle.”

Fans of the Final Four newcomers are thrilled for the chance to see their team play

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — This year’s Final Four will be different than Final Fours past, as three of the teams playing on the final weekend of the college basketball season are, functionally, doing so for the first time in the history of their program.

Neither Gonzaga nor South Carolina has played on this stage before. Oregon has — once — but this is their first Final Four since the first Final Four all the way back in 1939.

“Before I was born,” Roy Williams, head coach of the blue-blood North Carolina Tar Heels said, his second-straight appearance in the Final Four and the fifth time in 14 years in Chapel Hill that he’s reached this stage. Roy isn’t young, either; Theo Pinson could only muster a “Really?” when he found out that there was actual basketball played before Williams was born.

“I’m probably the only guy you’re going to know who has met Howard Hobson, who was the coach of that team,” Sportscenter anchor Neil Everett said.

Everett is in a unique situation heading into this Final Four.

Oregon is in his blood. His grandfather played football on Oregon’s 1920 Rose Bowl winning team. His father’s nickname is Laddie, after the star player on that 1939 national title-winning hoops. He himself is a graduate of Oregon, where he met his wife and attended the school at the same time as Gonzaga head coach Mark Few.

“I met my wife 10 years ago and she was an Oregon grad and prompted me to get more involved with Oregon again and make more of an effort,” Everett said. He hasn’t hidden his affection for the Tall Firs on air. “Since Coach Altman’s gotten there, we’ve gotten more into basketball and have enjoyed the ride for both.”

But Everett also grew up in Spokane. The first basketball game that he ever went to was a Gonzaga game. He refers to Gonzaga as “America’s team” on Sportscenter.

It’s hard to handle your team’s first trip to a Final Four, let alone the two teams that have a hold of your heart.

While his allegiances are torn, Everett will hardly be the only person experiencing the Final Four for the first time as a fan.

South Carolina had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament before this season. They did that twice in this season alone. Who knows if a run like this will happen again, which is why South Carolina fans will be traveling en masse across the country.

“We flew from Charlotte and we asked security if they’ve seen more UNC or SC fans, and they said SC,” Donovan Houston, a senior at South Carolina, said. “I took three tests early this week to come to this game. I’m studying electrical engineering.”

Houston never expected a run like this, not with Duke looming as a potential second round matchup.

“We were fine with us getting into the tournament,” he said with a laugh. “We got a call last year that we were supposed to make it but they called the wrong USC — even though we’re the original, we were founded first — they called University of Southern Cal. We are bitter, and no one has been talking about that.”

Houston has spent the first two rounds of the tournament watching from Five Points in Columbia, opting to stay at home instead of spending the money it would take to get to, stay in, Greenville and New York, let alone pay for a ticket.

It was $300 to get a ticket to the games in Greenville. It was more in New York. Houston and fellow senior Sami Patel both paid $40, which will cover student section seats to both games, assuming that Gonzaga gets to the final.

Five Points was a fine place to watch a game, however. It was an even better place to celebrate a win.

“It has this one fountain in between all the bars, everyone stampeded the fountain and started jumping in it,” Patel said. “It was pretty majestic. There has to be 20,000 people on the streets in five points celebrating.”

Gonzaga fans were also celebrating their team’s success in the dance, although they weren’t always convinced that it was going to happen.

“I figured it would happen eventually,” said Danny Holland, who grew up just south of Spokane and now lives in Arizona. “But when you watch games, like when they beat Northwestern, they blew a 20-point lead, and we were just like, ‘Well, this is the team we know.'”

“But we finally made it.”

Holland has yet to get tickets for the game. He’s not a Gonzaga student, which means that if he’s going to go, he’s going to have to pay full mark-up on the secondary market. As of this publishing, it will cost you at least $264 on Seat Geek just to get in the door for Saturday’s semifinal games and more than $400 if you want to risk it and buy tickets for both Saturday and Monday.

Those Gonzaga fans, though, they’re pretty confident.

“I have them in my championship, so I knew it was happening,” Brittany Schmidt said.

Did you pick them to win it?

“Yeah. Every year. Been waiting a long time for this.”

No one knows that better than Adam Morrison, a lifelong Gonzaga fan-turned-Gonzaga legend.

“I was a ball boy for the 1995 team, the first team that went to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I’ve been a Zag fan my entire life and it’s been amazing to see, in a 20 year span, a program have a deep NCAA run and parlay it to sustained success.”

Report: Wichita State could leave for the AAC as soon as next season

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Wichita State is in advanced talks to leave the Missouri Valley for the American Athletic Conference, and the move could happen as early as next season, according to a report from Sports Illustrated.

From SI:

There’s strong mutual interest between both sides, and sources said that a final decision could be made within the next month or in as few as the next two weeks. Any decision would need to be approved by the American Athletic Conference’s presidents, but the mutual interest is strong enough where neither side sees any looming issues.

Getting the deal done sooner rather than later appears to be the goal, as, according to the report, neither side wants to deal with having to play a year in the MVC when everyone knows that they’ll be leaving the conference after it.

I’m not quite sure how smart this move is for the AAC. While Wichita State is a terrific basketball program right now, that all depends on just how long they hold onto Gregg Marshall. He’s got a team that will be a borderline top 10 team next season, but if he eventually does decide to leave the school, it’s fair to wonder if that success can continue.

The other side of this, however, is that getting into a bigger league probably makes it more likely that the Shockers can hold onto Marshall in the long-term.

Gonzaga’s blueprint, from the WCC cellar to the Final Four, is incredible and irreplicable

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — To understand just how far Gonzaga has come, you need to first understand what the program was 27 years ago.

“It’s leaps and bounds different,” Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth said. “It doesn’t even resemble [the old program].”

This was before the $25 million, 6,000-seat McCarthy Athletic Center was built, when Gonzaga was still playing in a gym that was straight out of high school, when tickets where $10 a pop and fans could sit anywhere they want. This was before they had a weight room for the athletic teams, when the basketball players would be doing squats next to the college guys doing curls and coeds on the treadmill. This was when Gonzaga, a little Jesuit school on the Washington-Idaho border, was paying their head coach a salary equivalent to a middle school math teacher.

“In no way shape or form could you ever envision what we [built], from that to right now,” head coach Mark Few said. “It’s 500 percent different from that school, how we travel, how we’re treated. We have a new arena.”

“I mean, we have expectations. We’re expected to win. And we’re expected to advance. Heck, we’re expected to get to a Final Four, and if we don’t get to a Final Four, it’s a disaster and we’re a failure. You know? So back in those days we were innocent and foot loose and fancy free. And those were the good old days.”



What makes Gonzaga’s rise from the depths of the WCC to being a top 15 program in college basketball is truly unique, a path that very likely will never be replicated for one, simple reason: The people that were a part of the program when the Zags started their run are still in the program nearly two decades later, as they gear up for the first Final Four in program history.

Mark Few has been with the program for 27 years, nine as an assistant and the last 18 as the head coach. His boss, athletic director Mike Roth, the man responsible for promoting Few all those years ago, has been in that position for 20 years and with the university for 30.

He’s also the man responsible for making sure that Few hasn’t left.

Because there have been overtures. From Indiana. From UCLA. From Oregon, the school that his parents attended, the school that he grew up 15 miles from.

Few said no every time.

“I’ve been lucky to keep Mark over these years,” Roth said. He’s wanted to stay. We’ve been doing the right things to make sure we give him the things he needs.”

“And I’m not talking about contracts. That’s easy stuff. I’m talking about facilities, supporting the program, how we travel, how we provide him opportunities to recruit, those types of things.”

That’s the other key to Gonzaga’s success. It’s not just that they’ve been able to keep Few around for 19 seasons, it’s that they’ve provided him with the financial support needed to be able to compete with the big boys. They built the nicest arena in their league. They’re in the process of building a state-of-the-art practice facility. They charter flights to road games. They charter flights for recruiting. A lot of people have invested a lot of money into building this program, and it’s paying dividends.

The proof?

Look at the caliber of player they’re in the mix with. Take Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American and a potential one-and-done first round pick, committed to Gonzaga over the likes of Arizona, Oregon and Cal. They landed Nigel Williams-Goss, a first team all-american this year, left Washington, his hometown school where he was a first-team all-Pac 12 point guard, and enrolled at Gonzaga, the U-Dub’s biggest in-state rival.

“We need to make sure that if we’re here in the Final Four, the teams we’re playing against in the Final Four that we’re doing the same kind of things,” Roth said. “It takes players. Mark can be a great coach, but if we don’t have players, we can’t win games.”

“I thought our teams, even back to ’99, had shown that they could compete if given the opportunity on the national level,” Few said. “And we followed up: Sweet 16, Sweet 16.”

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“Then we got Turiaf and Morrison and guys like that, and I felt we were getting the type of players that we could compete on the national level. And all that time we were staying nationally relevant. Maybe not for this particular weekend, but we were, you know, definitely first and second weekend-type of program, which is pretty good.”

The only comparable mid-major program is Wichita State, but even that isn’t all that similar. For starters, the Shockers were a successful program before Gregg Marshall showed up, and he’s turned that from a really good Missouri Valley program into a top 30 program.

“The way I refer it to is Mark made Gonzaga his next job,” Marshall said. “I make Wichita my next job instead of moving to an intermediate step. More money, whatever. We decided not to leave. We’ve had opportunities to leave, but I didn’t see them as being head and shoulders above Wichita State.”

Where Few separates himself, however, is that Gonzaga never had to jump to a bigger league to survive. VCU went from the CAA to the Atlantic 10. Davidson went from the SoCon to the Atlantic 10. Butler went from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 to the Big East.

Gonzaga has remained in the WCC, dominating their league, recruiting pros and — perhaps the best sign of what this program has turned into — scheduling neutral site non-conference games with the best programs in the sport.

No one else can claim that.

And no one else ever will.