Such is the look of this first-round NCAA Tournament game. There's not much shocking about this scout. The Mountaineers want to impose an interior-based, halfcourt fight that relies on rebounding and toughness. Mark Few's Gonzaga squad wants and up-and-down, high-scoring, hot-shooting contest that looks good – with the results likely matching for the Zags. Whichever team gains an edge in forcing their style onto the other has an excellent chance of advancing to the next round.
The Bulldogs run a traditional look, with two guards, two forwards and a center. The primary issue for Few this season has been the youth of the backcourt. Kevin Pangos (6-1, 180 lbs.) and Gary Bell, Jr. (6-1, 205 lbs.) have been productive as freshmen, but also made untimely mistakes. Pangos actually averages a team-highs in points per game (13.8) and minutes played (31.7). Like Bell, Jr., Pangos is a solid outside shooter who hits from anywhere behind the arc. The newcomer has connected on 40.5 percent from 3-point range, while Bell, Jr. is shooting a sizzling 47.4 percent from the outside. West Virginia must challenge shots and limit penetrate-and-kick opportunities for the guards. Neither of the Zag starters are likely to be able to match the burst or speed of Truck Bryant or Jabarie Hinds, so the matter of avoiding the majority of open looks for the one and two spots comes down to getting off screens effectively and continuing to hustle to at least contest the shot.
Pangos, the better distributor of the two, averages 3.39 assists per game and has an almost two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. He has played above the level of most freshmen, but hasn't often been challenged by the physical nature West Virginia will utilize. Bell, Jr. is more a slasher and will look to get to the bucket if nothing is available outside. He is the more physical of the two, though both convert well at the free throw line.
Swingman Guy Landry Edi (6-6, 218 lbs.) is the least threatening scorer of the first five. The junior averages 5.6 points and 2.4 rebounds and only plays about 17 minutes. He is 50 percent at the line, and is probably the least challenging match-up for the Mountaineers. Power forward Elias Harris (6-7, 240 lbs.) is second on the team with 13 points per game and has been excellent in and around the paint, making more than half his field goal attempts while also connecting on 25 of 62 threes. Gonzaga's best rebounder, Harris averages almost nine per game. He does turn the ball over, but is an impressive threat from anywhere on the floor and has a shooting touch not often seen at the four spot in the Big East. He is likely to pull Kevin Jones or Deniz Kilicli away from the bucket, depending on how Bob Huggins wants to try and match the Bulldogs defensively. This is likely the defensive assignment for Jones, and it's likely Few will want to keep the All-Big East player away from the bucket as much as possible. A cold shooting night from Harris would be a major asset.
Center Robert Sacre (7-0, 260 lbs.) will probably draw Kilicli. More of a finesse style player than Kilicli, Sacre nevertheless will scrap inside and has said he is ready for the physical challenge. The senior averages 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, and has the size West Virginia will struggle with sans Kilicli, who must remain out of foul trouble. The Bulldogs might dump the ball inside early, or use Harris slashing to the goal to try and draw a few early whistles on Kilicli, who has struggled with foul trouble. Deniz must remain focused and disciplined and not allow any cheap fouls. Sacre is solid from the line, and will have a few inches of height edge in this one. Body control and finding a man when rebounding is a must for WVU's frontcourt.
Few will play as few as seven and as many as nine players in the rotation. Top reserve Sam Dower (6-9, 248 lbs.) gives Gonzaga size and some scoring punch off the bench. The sophomore averages eight points and four rebounds in 18 minutes on average. He is making almost 55 percent from the field, and the added body will allow Few to continue to attack Kilicli while not worrying about piling up a few fouls on his back-up player. This could be a significant issue for the Mountaineers, as the player numbers definitely favor Gonzaga. Two-guard Marquise Carter (6-4, 178 lbs.) plays about 14 minutes but lacks the shooting touch one would expect. The senior hasn't been a 3-point threat all season and would much rather pressure the rim.
Back-up point guard David Stockton (5-11, 152 lbs.), a sophomore and son of former Utah Jazz star John, is nearly a mirror image of his father on the floor. He plays a heady floor game, and often resembles his father when handling the ball and always having his gaze upcourt and ready to distribute. He plays about 17 minutes, and is averaging about 38 percent from the field and the same percentage from 3-point range. He doesn't shoot as well as one might think from the line, and though he sees the floor well and averages a few assists per game, his overall play isn't fully polished. He won't hurt Gonzaga, though, and is a very dependable reserve. Fellow guard Mike Hart (6-6, 206 lbs.) gives Few some height to work with, and can play the three-spot as needed. The junior isn't very active, though, and is typically inserted only in short spurts to gain rest for teammates.
Slow the tempo, rebound, control second-chance points, make free throws and, arguably most important – remain out of foul trouble. Those are the major keys for West Virginia. If it can accomplish those, and it's not totally cold from the field, it can win a Round of 64 game for the fourth time in five seasons under Huggins. Transition defense will also loom large, though that largely falls under controlling the tempo. WVU also needs some production from Deniz Kilicli, who needs to stay on the floor and not get whistled for minor fouls. The Mountaineers quickly went in the tank against UConn when Kilicli fouled out, and despite his shortcomings, the junior does take some heat off Kevin Jones and prevents a total double-teaming down low on the All-American.
CONSOL Energy Center
WVU - 57
GU - 25
Dominique Rutledge could also loom large this game. The 6-8, 240-pounder played solid minutes in the Big East Tournament and has begun to come on late in the season as a decent contributor and another player who adds toughess and rebounding ability. His depth is key, and he must perform decently and convert at least 50 percent at the line. Rutledge has amassed 20 points and 29 rebounds the last three games, and has created several turnovers with his muscle and reach. This is another player Gonzaga will have difficulty mustering the muscle to handle, and his explosiveness to the rim and in attacking the bucket could be an intimidation factor. West Virginia has been in grinder games and played multiple close contests against a tougher schedule. The Mountainers should have a mental advantage in the game, unless Gonzaga can open it up early. The longer it stays close, and the physical, blue-collar play continues, the better for WVU as long as it remains out of foul trouble. West Virginia could wear down the smaller foe, and begin to impose its will at the end where it could not against Big East teams with better depth.
Also keep an eye on Gonzaga's freshman guards. They are playing in their first NCAA Tournament, and the on-ball pressure and ability of Truck Bryant to defend could stifle some of the ball distribution and exterior scoring. WVU must cut down on penetration and not allow the guards, or small forward, to get into the lane and kick for open looks. This is a major focus on defense, and one which will be continually tested by the Bulldogs throughout the game. Cut off drives quickly and contest shots. Handling on-ball screens, an issue all season, will also be imperative.
This is Bob Huggins' 20th NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach. Only four active coaches have more appearances. He has 710 wins. Bryant and Jones will become WVU's fourth and fifth WVU players to play in four NCAA Tournaments.
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West Virginia is the only Big East team to post a .500 or better league record in the regular season in each of the last eight years. The Mountaineers are 19-7 in postseason games during that span.
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WVU and Gonzaga met in the Mountaineers' first bowl appearance, the 1922 East-West Bowl held on Christmas Day in San Diego. West Virginia won 21-13 after traveling across the country. The Zags will look to do the same after making a 2,000-mile plus trip from Spokane, Wash. to Pittsburgh. WVU traveled about 75 miles.
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West Virginia is 1-0 in the CONSOL Energy Center, with a 64-61 win over Duquesne on Dec. 12, 2010. It is 1-2 against teams from the West Coast conference. Huggins is 1-1 vs. Gonzaga. His No. 1 ranked Cincinnati team beat Gonzaga in 1999.
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David Stockton's great-grandfather, Houston, was a freshman halfback on the 1922 Gonzaga football team that lost to West Virginia. In 1924, Houston was named an All-American as the Bulldogs when undefeated. David's brother is named Houston in his honor.