Coming off their best season in school history, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have high hopes again this year as a contender for the NCAA men’s basketball championship. The perennial March Madness team has even garnered the attention of HBO, which began following the Spokane squad in November for a five-episode reality series that is premiering Feb. 16.
Kalispell fans may recognize a towering presence emerging down low.
Ryan Edwards, a 2013 graduate of Glacier High School, has seen an increased role this season after the team’s star center, Przemek Karnowski, was sidelined indefinitely in December with a back injury.
Head coach Mark Few has called on the redshirt sophomore from Kalispell to help fill in more often for the Bulldogs (15-5 overall) as they gear up for another run to the NCAA tournament.
Listed at 7-foot-1, Edwards scored 10 points with three rebounds, one assist and one block in 14 minutes of action against San Diego on Jan. 16. Against BYU on Jan. 14, Edwards scored six points with three rebounds and two blocks in 18 minutes.
“Ryan kind of finally seemed like he got comfortable,” Few told the media after the 88-52 win over San Diego, “almost like the way he was playing his freshman year, getting to his go-to moves, did a nice job protecting the rim. If he can come in and gives us that then we can rest (starters Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis). In the past he hasn’t really been giving us that. That was a big step for him.”
From Glacier to Gonzaga, Edwards is reaching his potential as a physically gifted athlete who earned a shot playing for one of the best college basketball programs in America. Gonzaga scouts, who 10 years ago famously recruited another well-known Kalispell standout, Brock Osweiler, had their eye on Edwards early on. Edwards verbally committed to play in Spokane after his junior year, when he averaged 13.3 points per game and 10.7 rebounds. As a senior, he helped lead Glacier to a 19-5 record, the most wins in school history, and averaged 12.8 ppg and 7.9 rpg.
In high school, he was one of Montana’s tallest college prospects in history, standing 6-11. But at Gonzaga, he joined one of the tallest lineups in the NCAA. Gonzaga has five players 6-9 or taller this season. Edwards is now the Zags’ tallest in the absence of the injured Karnowski, but that hasn’t made it much easier for him to hold his own.
“It was hard in the beginning,” he told the Beacon recently. “It’s a lot more physical, of course, than what I was used to in high school. Now when I’m playing against people my size, people who are NBA prospects, I have to be more physical. You just learn how to play against them. It’s a lot harder than I was expecting.”
Edwards played in 17 games during his freshman season in 2013-14, appearing off the bench. He scored a career-high five points on two occasions. He redshirted last year and took the opportunity to focus on his fitness. He has shed over 30 pounds, going from 310 down to 278. His goal is to reach 265.
“I’m working out every day,” he said. “I had a good offseason. In the back of my mind, I knew I could be a guy to go to. I knew that my time was coming.”
Edwards said Few has pushed him to grow as a player.
“He’s helped me grow a lot,” Edwards said. “He’s hard on me but he needs to be to make me the player I need to be. I’m working hard. That’s the best advice I got, was to play hard.”
There is more pressure now, but Edwards is embracing the opportunity.
“When I get on the floor, I’m nervous to check into the game but as soon as I check in and start playing, it’s just the game I’ve been playing since third grade,” he said. “You don’t think about the crowd or people watching on TV. You just play your game and you can’t psyche yourself out.”
Edwards is confident that the Bulldogs will make another run at the NCAA tournament. A year after finishing 35-3 and falling just short of the Final Four, the team is seeking its 18th consecutive NCAA tournament berth this year. With a month left in the regular season, the team — and Edwards — appears ready to rise to the challenge.
“We just want to give all we’ve got in the tournament because you never know when you’re going home,” he said. “I think we’ll make a good run.”
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