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.”

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.