This is going to sound weak, but one of the reasons I chose to go to school at WSU - over U-Dub and Oregon - was distance. Pullman felt more like home, in part because it was only about 80 miles or so from home.
The point is: I can't imagine what it's like to commit to four years of your life going to college several thousand miles away from home. Yet WSU made a habit of getting good kids to come here, whether it be from Hawai'i or Australia or Texas or New Zealand or... Serbia.
Vince Grippi had the great story early in the year on Nikola Koprivica's humble beginnings in Serbia. Growing up there doesn't provide the inherent advantages of growing up in the U.S. Serbia - really, the whole of the former Yugoslavia, has been torn apart by war, suffered through economic stagnation and is still struggling to find a way back to prosperity after Milosevic.
Coming out of Sport Grammar School (still my favorite name of all-time for a prep school), Koprivica somehow found his way to Washington State. He turned heads quickly as a freshman, making good cuts to the basket and playing stout defense until an ACL tear sidelined him for the remainder of his first year in Pullman.
It's been said it takes about a full year - sometimes more - to fully recover from an ACL tear, and the injury unfortunately stunted Koprivica's development as a NCAA player. Having to rehab, he saw his minutes and his impact cut in both his sophomore and junior seasons. His drives to the basket weren't as quick, and his shooting suffered.
As it did, Nikola seemed to develop a tumultous relationship with the Cougar fanbase. One that, prior to this year, made me ashamed of a lot of our fans. Nik's lack of impact as a sophomore and junior soured a lot of fans on what he can do. His occasional turnover issues didn't help, especially in a Bennett system where every precious possession takes on more significance. His defense was still sound - something people overlook - and he still moved well without the ball. But his points per shot dropped from 1.23 as a frosh to 1.15 as a sophomore and a career-low 0.96 last season. Some people in the crowd groaned, some people said a lot of things that were much worse.
My favorite story of 2009-2010 will be - regardless of what happens the rest of the way - the resurgence of Nikola Koprivica. He's up to a whopping 1.53 points per shot as a senior, and even with his recent regression is still shooting 41% from beyond the arc. He leads the team and is 120th nationally in offensive rating. That three-point percentage is something hardly any of us saw coming, even those of us that gave Nik a break for the past two seasons. I love that even the most casual fans are hopping on the Nik bandwagon now: groaning when someone else replaces him in the lineup. He's become our most consistent threat from long range, and we've desperately needed it. They're even selling #4 replicas at the Bookie.
The high point remains his career-high 23 in the blowout win over Portland State in Kennewick. That's when Koprivica turned the corner, and his scoring finally started to match all the other things he's done so well over the past four years. Most everyone in the lower half of the ZZU CRU already knew he was a good player; it just took a scoring outburst to get everyone else on board. His rebounding has been notable, too - he had his first career double-double in the first matchup with Washington. He's played out of position at the 4 for most of the season and played it surprisingly well. He's gone from sixth man to one of our top performers.
Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that Nik has been maybe even more impressive off the court. He's taken home numerous WSU and Pac-10 academic honors, and was appointed one of the team spokesmen for the Cougars in the offseason. He handled the Bennett departure with a lot of class, and embraced the new system of Ken Bone. A system he's admittedly a better fit for. In everything he's done over four years he's represented WSU - and his native Serbia - well. He deserves a lot of praise.
We've come full circle. The fanbase that embraced Nikola Koprivica as a freshman is now doing it again. And, tonight, he'll be honored as the team's lone senior. The only senior - or at least the only one of note - for both this year and the next. Which says a lot about our youth. And while Senior Night ranges in emotion from Randy Green (0 for 7) to Taylor Rochestie (The Shot), what really matters is the sum of the whole experience.
That's what we should really be thanking Nikola Koprivica for tonight.