Men’s basketball: Rebounding key for UVU at Gonzaga

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Photo by Brigham Berthold

In what promises to be a test of the its collective intestinal fortitude, the Utah Valley University men’s basketball team will tip off the 2016-17 season against the No. 14 Gonzaga Bulldogs in Spokane, Washington Friday night.

Despite losing top scorers Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, the Bulldogs return 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski. After he played in just five games last season due to a knee injury, Karnowski returns for his senior season. During his junior season, Karnowski averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while playing beside Wiltjer.

The second part of the Bulldogs’ two-headed monster in the paint is forward Johnathon Williams. A long 6-foot-9 forward, Williams transferred to Gonzaga from Missouri after his sophomore season, where he led the Tigers in points, rebounds and blocks.

“This Karnowski’s a problem, this Johnathan Williams is one of the best rebounders in the country,” said UVU head coach Mark Pope. “So we start out with a big problem there that we’ve got to find a way to solve, that’s going to be a real challenge for us.”

With the style of play Pope runs, UVU is an inherently small team. UVU’s size is good when it comes to running up and down the court, but rebounding is a perpetual issue for the Wolverines. If UVU is to keep the rebounding battle close, it will need to take a committee approach to crashing the boards.

Even if UVU can find a way to corral rebounds against Gonzaga’s massive size, the Kennel is known for its deafening noise that gives the Bulldogs their home-court advantage.

“It is a great venue for basketball,” said Pope. “The whole student section is right on the floor, the whole length of the sideline and the energy of the gym can kind of make you feel a little sideways, too, because you can’t hear anybody on your team. You’ve got so much energy and juice your shots are going to be long, or short, or off or whatever, so we’ve got to find a way to get ourselves settled as quickly as possible after this game starts.”

Pope hopes to settle his players by getting them to the free-throw line. UVU shot a total of 27 free throws in Monday’s exhibition, but the Wolverines aim to improve on their ability to get to the charity stripe by punishing the Bulldogs with their ability to shoot the ball.

“We can really shoot the ball, so people can choose: They can either come challenge us at the 3-point line or they can live with it. Most teams are going to choose to come challenge us,” said Pope.

As UVU forces Gonzaga to respect its ability to shoot from the outside, the defense will attempt to chase shooters off the 3-point line and the Wolverines hope to draw fouls on closeouts. Even if the fouls don’t come, shots will likely fall for this team that shot 37.2 percent from downtown in Monday’s exhibition.

Heading into the Kennel is a tall order for a team with 13 new players on the roster that has only played one exhibition game together, but the Wolverines are optimistic in their ability to compete with a national power in Gonzaga.

“Honestly, we go into every game thinking we’re going to win,” said UVU guard Brandon Randolph. “We don’t care who we play. I know they’re talented, but I know we’re talented, too. I know no one expects us to win. I guess they haven’t lost a game in a couple years, but this is a new year.”

Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. MT.