By JOSEPH TERRY
The Daily Inter Lake
When Gonzaga center Ryan Edwards signed to play in Spokane, the program was already a known quantity.
The Glacier product, a 7-foot-1 stopper in the paint, joined the Zags after the team had been in 14 consecutive NCAA men’s basketball tournaments and had won the West Coast Conference for 12 of the last 14 years.
What he’s witnessed as part of the team, however, has been the most productive stretch in school history.
Since joining the club in the fall of 2013, Edwards has been on the team that gained the first Associated Press No. 1 ranking in school history, the team that earned the first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in school history and the team that went the furthest into the tournament in school history, a trip to the Elite Eight in 2015 that matched the school’s benchmark effort from 1999.
While his play on the court has had little to do with that, he’s averaging 2.2 points and 1.7 rebounds in 6.1 minutes in his three active seasons, he’s been an integral part of getting the Zags ready for its toughest opponents.
Any part he can play, he is gladly willing to do.
“My role is to make the bigs and the team the best they can be in the country,” Edwards said. “I’ve been playing against NBA players my entire career here at Gonzaga. It’s bad because I don’t get to play, but I’m making these guys better every single day.
“I may not be the best out there, but I’m 7-feet tall. I can play defense and score on them. Having someone to go against like me is really good. A whole lot of teams don’t have those types of backups or bench to play against with their big men.”
Gonzaga is more than just a trendy mid-major entering this season’s NCAA tournament. The Zags, more than even the last few years, are deep and talented at nearly every position.
The team enters this weekend as the only team in the country in the top 10 in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency adjusted for the strength of schedule, according to KenPom.com. ESPN.com ranks Gonzaga as the second-best team in its Basketball Power Index (BPI), a measure of how many point above or below average a team is. It ranks the Zags (32-1) third in strength of record, the measure of how tough it is to achieve a team’s current record.
In layman’s terms, that means there isn’t a more complete team in college basketball. After the seeding was released — Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in the West, playing South Dakota State in the first round — ESPN’s BPI gave the Zags the best chance to win the title of the 64 teams competing.
“This year we know we’re special,” Edwards said. “We know how deep we are. We know we can beat anybody. We have the No. 1 offensive efficiency in the nation, No. 1 defensively. It’s there in the stats.
“We’re all best friends. There’s no cliques. Everyone gets together and everyone functions well with everyone on the court, overall it just flows very well.”
Part of that is the size of the roster, and the depth. Led by 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga has two other players 6-10 or taller it regularly brings off the bench and can dip down to Edwards if those players get in foul trouble. Adding in a strong group of guards, including two Division I transfers, to add to last year’s team and Gonzaga can withstand any team it will face.
“This year we have a target on our back,” Edwards said. “We have a complete team this year, whether it’s the starting five or the three coming off the bench. It’s different when it comes to the depth.”
Edwards, now a redshirt junior in his fourth year with the program, has had a long journey. After a productive start to his freshman season in 2013-14, he got sick and missed most of the rest of the season battling back into shape. After redshirting his second year as the team fought to the Elite Eight, he got back into the fold for his redshirt sophomore season last year and worked his way into the rotation, playing in 31 games. This year, with a pair of highly-touted freshmen on the roster, he has taken a back seat, but still battles to keep those guys ready.
“I just want to keep them going,” Edwards said. “We have some practices that are easier than others, but on the days we go hard, I try to get the best of them and see what they got. Of course, I get my a** whooped every now and then. But, I feel like that’s my job. I need to push these guys to their limits to make them the best they can be because I know they’re going to have a really bright future.”
Edwards will be graduating with a degree in broadcasting and public relations this spring and said he wasn’t sure what his future will entail, but is trying to soak up the memories as they come.
“It’s the worst and the best time of the year,” Edwards said of the tournament season. “It’s getting close to the end and you just never know when your time is going to be up. It’s also so exciting, at the same point, you never know. You just want to see the best for your team and get as far as we possibly can. Try to make memories.
“It’s been awesome. I’ve loved it. I’ve met people here who are lifelong friends. Whether or not I’m a star player, people still love me. The community around here is awesome.”
The goal for Gonzaga, as with each of the 64 teams left in the tournament, is to win the next six games and claim a national championship. Even a trip to the Final Four in Phoenix would be a first for the Zags.
But, Edwards and the team aren’t limiting themselves.
“I think we can go all the way,” Edwards said. “I could see us going 39-0 before we lost. I think this loss will be good for us. I think we’re going to bounce back from it really well. I’m excited to see what happens.”
Gonzaga tips off today at noon against South Dakota State in the first round in Salt Lake City. The game will be televised on TBS.