By Mike Schmeltzer
For Gonzaga News Service
SPOKANE, Wash. — Dustin Triano came to Gonzaga University for one simple reason: He wanted to be part of something bigger than himself.
A high school basketball star in Vancouver, British Columbia, Triano had offers from smaller schools but opted to walk on at GU for the opportunity to be a role player in one of America’s premier college hoops programs.
“Coming in, I knew it wasn’t going to be all about me,” said Triano, a 6-foot-3-inch junior shooting guard. “I’m part of a team and I want to help my team. I have a role to play and I enjoy that role.” Plus, he added, “I like to win and in college basketball Gonzaga is a program that wins.”
Indeed, heading into their eighth Sweet 16 appearance on Thursday in San Jose, California, against West Virginia, the 34-1 Zags are in their 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament. Only three schools in the U.S. have longer active NCAA Tournament streaks than Gonzaga. Along the way, the Zags have never won fewer than 20 games in a season and now aim to advance to their third Elite Eight appearance.
International athletes such as Triano have played an outsized role in Gonzaga’s rise as a big-time college basketball power. This year, Gonzaga has players representing six different countries – a golden college sports franchise reflecting the ambitious global mission and reach of the university the team represents.
“International players have been a huge part of the growth of Gonzaga basketball,” said Tommy Lloyd, head assistant to GU men’s basketball coach Mark Few and the program’s chief international recruiter.
“International recruiting is an area in which we have been able to distinguish ourselves over the years,” said Lloyd, who has been part of the GU coaching staff since 2001. “Spokane is a great place, but it’s not a hotbed of basketball talent. We have to look outside the area – including outside the U.S. But that has paid off for us.”
The last time Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight, in 2015, the Zags were led by point guard Kevin Pangos, a four-year starter out of Newmarket, Ontario. In 2013, when Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 going into the NCAA Tournament, it was 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk from Kamloops, British Columbia, who was the team’s top player. Since Gonzaga’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1995, the GU roster has always included at least one foreign player, with a total of 28 international athletes representing 13 different countries suiting up for the Zags.
This year’s senior leader at Gonzaga is Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1 center from Poland.
Read related stories about Karnowski, Killian Tillie from France and some of the Zags’ most notable international players from the past.
“Internationally, we can recruit at a level and bring in players that schools our size just don’t get. Guys like Pangos and Karnowski come here and they’re McDonald’s All-American talents – it’s just that they’re not Americans.”
Gonzaga’s Global Engagement
Globalism can be found in the very roots of Gonzaga. The university was founded in 1887 by Jesuit priests who came from Italy, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland and Canada as well as the United States to build a frontier mission and school in Spokane, Washington. Today, GU has an undergraduate enrollment of 5,160 and another 2,400 students in its graduate programs and Gonzaga Law School.
Over the years, the Catholic university has faithfully cultivated global engagement as a key element of its institutional mission. For more than 50 years, Gonzaga has operated one of America’s premier study-abroad programs in Florence, Italy. In addition to the Gonzaga in Florence campus, GU operates more than 50 additional study-abroad programs in 20 countries. Nearly half of GU’s undergraduates participate in a study-abroad experience while at Gonzaga.
Gonzaga’s Jesuits also founded and operated the Amerasian Heritage Program, which for many years brought young Amerasians – sons and daughters of U.S. servicemen – to the Spokane campus from Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan to learn English, study for a college degree and discover their American heritage. Also part of the university’s two-way cultural bridge is an acclaimed on-campus English as a Second Language program that has helped more than 3,000 students from all over the world improve their English language skills, delve into American culture and work toward a college degree.
Once they leave school, GU graduates often continue to pursue global outreach and engagement. For the past four years, Gonzaga has ranked tops among all small U.S. colleges and universities in the number of alumni serving around the world with the Peace Corps.
“Our world is profoundly global, multicultural and international,” said Patricia O’Connell Killen, Gonzaga academic vice president. “Globally focused graduates acknowledge that their opportunities and challenges are inextricably linked to people in Syria, South Sudan, the Philippines, the Congo, and every other place in the world.”
Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh said this reflects the university’s enduring mission to produce enlightened, passionate graduates who are making a difference in the world. “Gonzaga graduates are committed to improving our world, and daily work to help create a world of peace, justice and greater understanding among people,” McCulloh said.
For Triano, the international experience at GU has revolved largely around teammates. This season, he is playing alongside athletes from Poland, France, Denmark, Japan and, of course, the United States.
“Gonzaga has been doing this for so long that they really have it down,” he said. “They help you with all of the paperwork. Once you’re here, you feel welcome. Everyone’s included right away – you’re part of the team, part of the community.”
Along with basketball, Gonzaga’s international players also get coaching on adjusting to the rigors of college-level course work and life in a small American city, as well as language help when needed.
“They’re all unique individuals coming from different backgrounds with different goals, but when they first get here they’re also all wide-eyed 18-year-olds who have never been away from home,” said Steffany Galbraith, director of academic support services for GU athletics.
“For someone … from western Canada, it’s much less of an adjustment to come to Spokane for college than it was for Przemek or Rui (Hachimura, a freshman on this year’s team who is from Japan),” Galbraith said. “Along with all of the other demands of coming here to play basketball, Przemek and Rui faced the challenges of a new culture and language.”
Karnowski, Gonzaga’s 7-foot-1 senior center from Torun, Poland, has been part of more victories during his career than any player in NCAA Division I history. He became the NCAA all-time wins leader with 132 victories when GU beat Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament title game. With the Zags’ two wins so far in this year’s NCAA Tournament, his victories total 134. He is a finalist for the Kareem Abdul Jabbar Award, given to the best center in college basketball. Hachimura is a promising 6-foot-8 freshman forward from Sendai, Japan.
At Gonzaga, academic expectations are high. GU ranks No. 3 nationally among all NCAA schools for student-athlete graduation rate, trailing only Harvard and Loyola of Chicago, another Jesuit university. Olynyk, a first team basketball All-American at Gonzaga before going on to play with the NBA’s Boston Celtics, was also an Academic All-American at GU.
Triano himself has proven to be an outstanding student, earning a bachelor’s degree in business in just three and a half years at Gonzaga. Now studying for an MBA, he was one of five members of the men’s basketball team to earn dean’s list honors last fall.
From a Basketball Family
In Canada, the Triano name is practically synonymous with basketball. His father, Jay, starred as a player at Simon Fraser University and with the Canadian national team. After college, he was drafted by both the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, although he didn’t play with either team. He did go on to become the first Canadian-born assistant coach in the NBA before being named head coach of the Toronto Raptors. Later, he worked as an assistant with the Portland Trailblazers before his current job as associate head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Jay Triano also continues as head coach of the Canadian national team.
“Dustin comes from a great basketball family and he could have been the man at any number of smaller schools,” Lloyd said. “He made the choice to come to Gonzaga because this was something he wanted to be part of.”
Triano plays sparingly – usually after the game has already been decided. “But he has a very important role in helping prepare for our opponents,” Lloyd said. It’s Triano’s job to impersonate the upcoming opponent’s best outside scoring threat in practice. “Dustin is a great shooter and he has always given it his all. He makes us better in so many ways.”
Triano indeed is a deadly marksman. Even playing limited minutes, he led Gonzaga last year in three-point shooting percentage, hitting six of 12 shots for 50 percent. The next best on the team was Kyle Wiltjer – a dual Canadian-American citizen who grew up in Portland, Oregon – who his 43.7 percent of his three-point attempts. Wiltjer is now playing for the Houston Rockets of the NBA.
After college, Triano said he hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a coach. “Studying business, I’ve learned a lot about organization and management. That’s applicable in all kinds of pursuits, including coaching.”
“Dustin has it in his DNA to be a coach,” Lloyd said. “He is so smart and understands the game so well. Even when he on the bench, he’s one of the best leaders on this team.”