NCAA Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers - Gonzaga Bulldogs

West Virginia will be tested by its strongest interior opposition of the season when it trades coasts to play Gonzaga in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 contest.

SCOUTING THE BULLDOGS

Where does it start for Gonzaga? Conference player of the year Nigel Williams-Goss (6-3, 195 lbs.) who averages 16.7 points per game and deals out nearly five assists per outing? Frontcourters Przemek Karnowski (7-1, 300 lbs.) and Zach Collins 7-0, 230 lbs.) who average 12.4 and 10.3 points per game, respectively, and have dominated for much of the season? Or is the key overlooked Jonathan Williams (6-9, 230 lbs.) who tosses in ten points and a team best 6.6 rebounds per game?

The answer here is “all of the above”. The Zags don't rely on just one or two players to get the job done. That quartet, along with guards Jordan Mathews (6-4, 200 lbs.) and Josh Perkins (6-3, 190 lbs.) are all capable of making key plays and big shots, making them very difficult to game plan for, Take one away, and others can thrive. All six of these players earned All-West Coast Conference honors of one sort or another, with Karnowski and Williams on the first team and Collins on the second.

In addition to Collins, Gonzaga usually only adds two players to its rotation off the bench. Silas Melson (6-4, 195 lbs.) and Killian Tillie (6-10, 200 lbs.) average 24 and 12 minutes respectively, but past that the subs' contributions are almost nil. They combine to chip in 12 points and five rebounds per contest.

One other interesting note about the Bulldogs – they have scored 126 more points in the second half than they have in the first this year. With big leads against many opponents, they might have been expected to let off the gas and see a drop in productivity, but that hasn't been the case. They've kept pushing, and have piled up 83.9 points per outing this season.There are a lot of numbers and advanced metrics that get tossed around and analyzed when Gonzaga comes up in the conversation, and lots of debate as to the effects of an overall schedule that is less challenging that that of many other teams. The eyeball test, though, shows a squad that is very capable of winning a national title.

GAME OUTLOOK

As Elijah Macon put it after the Notre Dame game, you have to “cut the head off the snake”.

WVU (28-8) vs. GU (34-1) Thu Mar 23 7:30 PM EST
SAP Center San Jose, CA Series: GU 3-0
SEED: WVU - 4 GU 1 TV: TBS Sirius/XM/SXM: 137/202/202

That has been West Virginia's approach against many teams with outstanding point guard scorer-distributors, and it's another tough challenge in this game against Williams-Goss, who like Notre Dame's Matt Farrell, is both an outstanding scoring and passing threat. He might be even stronger in the former category, but this is a battle that the Mountaineers must win if they are to advance to the Elite Eight. WVU will again direct its press to get the ball out of his hands, and force players unused to handling the ball to be good catchers and distributors themselves up and down the court.

Gonzaga can counter with Collins and Williams, who are big targets and can move well. Can they make the good decisions to prevent turnovers? There's also the WVU 1-3-1, which will be stressed in totally different ways against the Bulldogs if they choose to employ it. Karnowski could post up on the blocks and simply screen and pin repetitively, making life tough for Jevon Carter running the baseline and creating lots of opportunities for himself. WVU might have to modify the way it plays the zone, with more attention from the center onto the low blocks, in order to keep the Zags from camping on the doorstep.

On the opposite end, West Virginia has to capitalize in transition. It can't blow one-on-none fast breaks as it did against the Irish, and it has to get some easy hoops to counter Gonzaga's excellent shooting from the field. In comparing all of these stats, there's always the matter of taking opposition into play. While that might be good for a couple of percentage points' worth of shooting percentage or some extra boards, it is just a small part of GU's success. The Bulldogs are very, very good, and WVU will have to play at least as well as it did against Notre Dame to come out with the win.

Finally, is West Virginia so used to travel that another long jaunt is just a matter of course? Or is it one too many bricks to bear? The Mountaineers traveled to San Jose on Tuesday, and thus had a couple of days to adjust to the time change (which is two hours more than their current trips to Big 12 country cause) but at some point the combined effects might be too much – just as the cumulative effects of Press Virginia often weigh on foes at the end of games.

PRESS POINTS

Gonzaga has trailed at halftime only twice this season, against Florida and Pacific. In 1,400 minutes of game play, they have been behind for a total of 95 minutes and ten seconds.

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West Virginia must take advantage of its offensive rebounding chops in order to create second chances. Against Power Five schools, the Zags have given up more than 17 offensive rebounds per contest. The Mountaineers probably have to get at least that many to offset GU's shooting prowess.

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Gonzaga's current streak of 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is bested only by those of Kansas, Michigan State and Duke. While much is made of the Zags' “failure” to produce in the tournament, the Bulldogs are one of only three teams to reach this round in each of the last three seasons. Wisconsin and North Carolina are the others.

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A final stat to watch in relation to the press and the match-up of Carter and Williams-Goss. Gonzaga is 19th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.385-1. WVU is #2 nationally defensively in that stat, allowing just .601 assists to every turnover it causes.


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