Without a doubt, the Bulldogs are very skilled in both areas. Nigel Williams-Goss is a scorer, penetrator, creator and distributor out front, and the post/inside threats of seven-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins are the likes of which the Mountaineers haven't seen, at least in terms of quality depth, this year. Either is enough of a problem, combined, both have resulted in just one loss for the Bulldogs this season. It's not likely that the Mountaineers will be able to shut down everything the Zags bring to the court, so the question becomes this: which one is the most important in trying to slow the Spokane Express?
Head coach Bob Huggins stuck to the plan that the Mountaineers have tried to execute for much of the season. Facing an armada of outstanding point guards during the season, WVU's top priority has been to try to disrupt play from that position.
"I think the guards, because of the way we play," Huggins said, referencing his team's pressure tactics. "We've just got to try to do what everybody else does, just kind of limit their touches inside. But I mean the whole thing with us starts on the perimeter. So we've gotta do what we've been doing."
Assistant coach Erik Martin was a bit more expansive, acknowledging that the question was a good one. In the end, though, the weight for him fell on the perimeter, even though he is the Mountaineers' big man mentor.
"I'd take away the guards, because in the end we'd find a way to rotate around the bigs," he said after contemplating the question for several moments. "Most of the time, if the guards aren't making shots and all you have is the inside, you can make adjustments. But if the guards are making shots on the perimeter they're just hard to get under control."
That doesn't mean that WVU is ignoring post defense. As against Bucknell in the NCAA first round, the Mountaineers will try to front the post and limit the touches the Bulldogs get on the blocks and in the paint. That's easier said than done, though. It's not as if the defense can simply get in front of offensive post players and end the battle. There's a constant dance of post, move, screen away and relocate that gives offensive players multiple chances to establish position, and they only have to win one per possession. If they do, and then get the ball, it can be lights out for the defense.
There's one key above others for the Mountaineers, or any team, hoping to prevent that. Martin describes it, but again, it's easier in the telling than in the execution.
"Sitting on his legs. You can get in front of a lot of people, but if you aren't in a crouched stance and pushing back on his legs, they'r going to throw the ball over your head. The other part to that is the guards' responsibility. If they don't have ball pressure, that lob pass is easy to make. You have to have pressure to make that pass stay a little bit longer in the air, or maybe make it a little off target."
So, again, the guard angle comes into play. Against Notre Dame, WVU made Matt Farrell something of an afterthought in the offense. That's not likely to happen against Gonzaga, but the Mountaineers must win enough of those battles to put then in a position to win the war.
Elijah Macon, who was part of that hit or miss effort against Bucknell, knows that this is a whole new challenge.
"Just to make it real hard for them," he said of the main goal. "Obviously we'll front the post the whole game, but obviously you just make it really hard for them to score the ball even if they do catch it. It starts with the guards, just putting ball pressure on the guards and just make sure we do what we gotta do if they do get the ball."
That, of course, is the trick. It's not as if these tactics will be anything new for Gonzaga, so it comes down to a matter of execution. The key, again, may lie out front. While teams have sagged, fronted and tried to deny interior passes against the Bulldogs all year, it's how they handle pressure out front in the halfcourt that may be the deciding factor.
Nathan Adrian adds that keeping the Bulldogs away from the basket as much as possible is a primary goal, but again, that starts with the guards.
"It's hard to win if you are shooting jump shots. Layups are pretty high percentage shots, especially for their bigs. We'll front as much as possible, but it's all about ball pressure."