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Blanchette: Zags’ Karnowski making his presence known in NCAA tournament

Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski tries to create elbow room against Oklahoma State’s Kamari Murphy. (Dan Pelle)
Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski tries to create elbow room against Oklahoma State’s Kamari Murphy. (Dan Pelle)

SAN DIEGO – You might be surprised to learn that at the Spokane residence he shares with two roommates, Przemek Karnowski is the 7-foot-1 Felix Unger, relatively speaking.

He cooks. He cleans.

He leans on them when he thinks they’re going all Oscar Madison on the place.

He cranks Polish rap on the sound system and sings along.

OK, so maybe there’s a limit to any neurotic fastidiousness.

“You hear it coming from his room when you wake up,” said Rem Bakamus, his housemate and Gonzaga basketball teammate. “You can’t understand a thing he’s saying.”

His English gets better and better and his growing game picks up the inevitable Yankee touches, but it is good to know that the Americanization of Przemek Karnowski may be forever incomplete.

Not that it isn’t getting a big nudge this weekend as the NCAA basketball tournament moves into its third round.

He got an unsolicited education in cultural controversy when CBS/Turner announcer Andrew Catalon used a regrettable pejorative during Gonzaga’s 85-77 win over Oklahoma State. Catalon sought out Karnowski to apologize after the game, and though the flames were fanned on social media, Karnowski was both gracious and mystified at the fuss, being too young to recall when the word was a fulcrum for ill-considered comedy.

Now he’s a front-and-center character for tonight’s encounter with top-seeded Arizona, a bit of wistful role-reversal for the Zags who saw their No. 1 dreams end at this juncture last year.

And in a further curiosity, he’ll be mostly matched up against Wildcats sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, another 7-footer with a familiar heritage.

Though to listen to Tarczewski, he may not be able to find Poland on a map.

“I like pierogi, but I get them from the store – we’re not home-cooking them or anything,” he said, explaining that he was at least two generations removed from an ancestor coming through Ellis Island. “I don’t think we have much of the heritage left other than the last name.”

Just the mention of pierogi makes Karnowski a little homesick (“My grandma’s are the best”), since he hasn’t found a good one in Spokane, but those tugs have been ameliorated since his arrival at Gonzaga less than two years ago. Increasingly, he finds reviving connections – countrymen who seek him out at conference road games, the flag he saw waved in the stands at Viejas Arena here on Friday afternoon.

“Two weeks ago, somebody messaged me on Facebook that there’s a Polish group (in Spokane),” he reported, “and they wanted to invite me. I will try to go. I think it would be kind of cool.”

He would be an even bigger attraction if he could somehow lead Gonzaga past the Wildcats, who spent eight weeks at No. 1 earlier this season.

But even before that, it’s worth reflecting that the Zags have already won 29 games – equal to their second-highest total ever – and it doesn’t happen without some giant strides by their latest giant. He has been overpowering some nights – he had 15 points and 10 rebounds against the undersized Cowboys – and a singular defensive presence (“a real-estate guy,” Tarczewski calls him). He has a right hand now, and is part of the team pulse just a year after the frustration of sitting behind standouts Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and Sam Dower was often evident on his face.

“He’s been so good in ways people don’t see – how smart he is on offense, running our plays right every time,” said Zags assistant Tommy Lloyd. “He built a great foundation to have a dominant year next year.”

But there’s more than a foundation.

Though he spent his last year of high school at an academy eight hours from his home in Torun, Karnowski’s adjustment to Gonzaga life was fitful. Once too reticent about his English to speak in class, he’s now playful in conversation.

“You want to sit down?” he said, greeting a 6-foot reporter in GU’s locker room here. “I don’t think you want me to stand up.”

No one has seem him blossom quite like Bakamus, a walk-on from Longview who’s redshirting this season. Thirteen inches shorter than Karnowski, their friendship was soon dubbed “Shrek and Donkey” by teammates – not Karnowski’s favorite endearment.

“When he first came here, he wore baggy, long jeans shorts, running shoes and a dress shirt,” Bakamus said. “It was terrible. We’ve fixed him up. He’s got some Jordans now. Much better.”

But in fact the bigger changes seem to come when Karnowski gets an emotional care package in the form of a visit home (over Christmas 2012) or this year’s holiday visit from parents Bonifacy and Wieslawa. Or even his Easter break trip last year back to Bakamus’ home.

“He was an immediate celebrity,” Bakamus reported. “People were talking about this huge guy with Rem. We played pickup ball and he was out playing point guard – messing around, leading the break, throwing behind-the-back passes.”

That’s not his usual real estate. But Przemek Karnowski belongs to two cultures now.