The challenges for the Mountaineers are literally sizable. Much will be made about the Zags' 7-1, 300 pound center in Przemek Karnowski. The senior averages 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. But the numbers are the least of the issues. Karnowski is a space eater, one who clears room on the interior, can score with his back to the bucket on back downs and who has a four-inch height edge against any WVU player which sees routine time. He also challenges shots around the rim and is a perfect complement to guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 228 pounds. Williams-Goss can stretch defenses with 35.6 percent shooting from three-point range, and his pure scoring ability (19.2 pts over last five games) makes him a match-up issue. Williams-Goss is hitting at a better than 50 percent rate from the field and, perhaps even more difficult, has made a whopping 139 of 154 (90.3 percent) from the line in netting 16.7 points and 5.8 boards per outing.
Add in forward Jonathan Williams, whose length at 6-9 is also a concern, and West Virginia has arguably its greatest size issue of the postseason. Williams averages 10 points and 6.6 boards per game in playing a team-high 32 minutes per game, and his assist-to-turnover is nearly two-to-one. One could go on with sheer statistics for the West Coast Conference regular and postseason champs. Sixth-man Zach Collins with 58 blocks and 10 points per game. Every starter averaging double digits. A team that has lost just one game this season with a head coach in Mark Few that is among the brightest minds in the game.
But this one comes down to a couple key concepts. West Virginia must force the pace, and dictate it as best as possible. That doesn't necessarily mean a completely uptempo affair. Gonzaga has run with foes, and done it effectively. The Mountaineers will, instead, try to mix between press and halfcourt defense, and utilize it's ability to play both full court pressure and tight man defense to speed up the Zags offense and have it operate both beyond the three-point arc and with a shorter shot clock. It's not about simple speed of the game overall, but rather the opportunistic approach often used by West Virginia.
The Mountaineers must also limit Williams-Goss - likely with Nate Adrian - and deploy its man defense in challenging everything the Bulldogs (35-1) do. It's about making the opposition uncomfortable, and taking away the basics. Offensive disruption, passing lanes, creases to the bucket. It's simplistic in nature, difficult in operation. What West Virginia does well is fin a way to win. Down double-digits and unable to score against Kansas State, WVU turned the the 1-3-1 to limit the 'Cats to just four points over the final 19 possessions of the game. They used on-ball man defense to take away prime scorers for most of the season. They hit deep threes and free throws down the stretch to defeat Texas. They have won in a myriad of ways, with this its greatest challenge because of the versatility of the opponent.
There are no easy, clear-cut answers versus Gonzaga. West Virginia's toughness is a key here. It takes away what foes do on offense better than the vast majority of teams in defensive sets. Force the initial offensive action away from the hoop. Get a body on a body on rebounds. Challenge shots. Heavily pressure guards to where the discomfort wears upon one late in the game. Make the big men move and use effort to get open, with the precedent that the full 40 eventually has a cumulative effect. It's been futile in the past mostly because of personnel issues against Gonzaga. The Mountaineers possess the talent in this game. Can they create and - more importantly - hit shots? Convert free throws? Make the Bulldogs uncomfortable, a difficult aspect against a team that has simply found a way to win time and again against most.
In the end, it's typically more about West Virginia itself than it is the opponent. If it does what it does, without overreaching to make plays, it can win. Get outside the parameters of play, and Gonzaga takes advantage and moves on to the Elite Eight.
"Our whole deal with them has been do what you can do," Huggins said. "Don't try to be something you're not."
• WVU has reached the Sweet 16 in seven of its last 11 NCAA appearances (2017, 2015, 2010, 2008, 2006, 2005 and 1998).
• This is WVU’s eighth NCAA appearance in the last 10 years and 10th appearance in the last 13 seasons.
• WVU is 9-9 all-time in California with four wins in a row. WVU has played one NCAA Tournament game in California - a 65-62 loss to Utah in the 1998 NCAA Sweet 16 in Anaheim.
• The Mountaineers have scored a school-record 2,956 points this season, besting the previous mark of 2,884 in 1959.
• West Virginia’s 28 victories are the third most in school history behind WVU’s two Final Four teams (31 in 2010 and 29 in 1959). This is the third straight year the Mountaineers have won at least 25 games in a season.
• WVU is 8-4 in its last 12 games vs. AP Top 25 teams, with two wins over No. 1, one vs. No. 2 and two wins over No. 6.
• No. 2 Gonzaga is 34-1 overall and finished 17-1 in the West Coast Conference.
• The Bulldogs were 9-0 on the road and 10-0 on neutral courts this season.
• Gonzaga’s only loss was a 79-71 defeat at home to BYU on Feb. 25.
• Mark Few, a 1987 graduate of Oregon, is 500-112 in his 18th season at Gonzaga.
• West Virginia and Gonzaga will meet for the fourth time in all-time series play that began in 2012.
• The first meeting took place in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh with the Zags winning 77-54.
• The two teams then opened the 2013 season in Spokane with Gonzaga winning 84-50.
• The last meeting took place on Dec. 10, 2013 in Morgantown, an 80-76 Gonzaga victory
• Bob Huggins was 1-1 against Gonzaga while at Cincinnati. His top-ranked Bearcats defeated Gonzaga, 75-68, in the 1999 Gatorade Rock-N-Roll Shootout. Gonzaga defeated UC, 74-69, in the first round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
• WVU is 3-6 against current members of the West Coast Conference: BYU (1-1), Gonzaga (0-3), Pacific (1-0), Pepperdine (0-1), Portland (1-0) and Santa Clara (0-1).