The Mountaineers must get more shots. They must rebound the ball at both ends. And they must force the opposition out of what it wants to do offensively, rendering secondary options as the primary. That's the crux of every WVU victory, and it will loom large again in the Sweet 16 match-up versus Gonzaga.
Of course, all those ideals are easier said than done, especially against a program which has won 34 of 35 games and offers power five wins over the likes of Arizona, Iowa State, Florida and Northwestern, among others. The Zags have continually utilized excellent shooting and guard play in combination with the sheer size of center Przemek Karnowski (7-1, 300 lbs.) and forward Jonathan Williams (6-9, 228 lbs.) to overwhelm foes on the defensive end while also holding teams to a single shots on the majority of possessions. And therein likes portions of the battle for West Virginia.
"They do a terrific job," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. "I think they do a great job of scouting, so they know what you're going to do. To be successful in our game is about taking things away from people and they do a terrific job of taking things away. Then they've got that great size inside, not just size, but they're good. And they limit you to one shot."
Looking at Gonzaga's statistics against power five foes alone, however, the Zags don't have quite the edge they maintained against West Coast Conference opponents. Gonzaga is allowing power five teams an average of 17.6 offensive rebounds per game. That's a specialty for West Virginia, which averages 14.3 per game to rank fifth in the nation. The Mountaineers have largely controlled the second-chance points statistic against foes, and managed to take advantage of second and third opportunities. Gonzaga was even on the boards against a weak-rebounding Iowa State team, then went minus-eight against Arizona and minus-12 versus Washington, including allowing the Huskies 29 on the offensive end alone.
Part of the opposing team success in comparing only offensive rebounding numbers - and this is why we aren't doing that here - is that the Bulldogs shoot the ball so effectively (51.2% from the field, 37.4% 3pt.) that it doesn't get nearly as many chances as its foes on the glass. And because it's easier to rebound on the defensive end, due to three seconds and the resulting positioning, the numbers skew toward opponents. But examining the offensive rebounds allowed by the Zags against power five competition shows Gonzaga struggling in that category against NCAA Tournament teams. It's an area in which a WVU strength meets a potential weakness, and an area that must be exploited by the Mountaineers.
"We have been watching film," forward Elijah Macon said. "It compares to playing against Baylor, against Texas, all that size they have. I feel like they try to shrink the middle and not let us do what we do (offensively.)"
What Gonzaga might struggle with is matching up against Nate Adrian and Lamont West. Both have the ability to pull opposing big men away from the bucket, and the Zags don't like to stray too far from the rim at either end. Adrian has taken just nine threes over the last five games, making just one. Part of that is because Jevon Carter, Tarik Phillip and Dax Miles were hitting shots, especially against Notre Dame, while Adrian was winning 50-50 balls, diving on the floor and rebounding. But Adrian's ability as a stretch four is a key here, especially as it opens the floor and gives WVU an opportunity to crash the glass with Macon and Esa Ahmad.
The flip side to that is that Adrian is among the best at battling for offensive rebounds, and any shot he takes virtually eliminates him from that ability, so it will be a balancing act for the Mountaineers. West, meanwhile, has made just three three-pointers in 19 attempts since his 23 point performance against Texas. Just a couple threes from each, however, will lessen Gonzaga's desire to sag off the shooter and protect against the drive, and thus open both passing and rebounding opportunities inside.
"I fee like I can stretch the floor and take them out of what they want to do," West said. "I don't think they want to guard out there. They way we play gets them playing defense how they don't want to be playing. I'll know when I'm hitting shots and when I'm not."