SAN JOSE, Calif.–In 2015, West Virginia University made it to the Sweet 16 but it ended in disappointment with a 78-39 loss to Kentucky.
However, this time around the fourth-seeded Mountaineers (28-8) are searching for a different outcome when they take on top-seeded Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs (34-1) are preparing themselves for WVU’s intense pressure defense, which wreaked chaos on Notre Dame last weekend.
From the start of the game, the Fighting Irish were frustrated with the Mountaineers’ pressure. WVU forced 10 turnovers in the first half and 14 overall.
On average, Notre Dame committed 9.5 turnovers a game, which ranks second in the nation.
Turnovers could be costly for Gonzaga. In the second-round win over Northwestern, the Bulldogs committed 13 turnovers, which spurred a second half comeback by the Wildcats.
The Mountaineers lead the country in turnover margin (7.8), turnovers forced (20.1) and steals (10.2). WVU ranks third in scoring margin (15.3), fifth in offensive rebounds (14.3), 16th in assists (16.7) and 18th in scoring offense (82.1).
“That’s what we do,” head coach Bub Huggins said. “We try to make people play kind of the way we want them to play.”
A big game from point guard Nigel Williams-Goss will be important if Gonzaga hopes to take down the Mountaineers. The 6-foot-9, 228-pound junior averages 16.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest.
“He’s a good player, good size,” WVU point guard Jevon Carter said. “He’s poised. Try to play at his own pace. It’s us guards job to make him uncomfortable.”
Williams-Gross has a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio with 161 assists and 72 turnovers.
In the post, the Bulldogs have two big guys that dominate the boards, which could be problematic for the Mountaineers.
“They’re really big,” Huggins said earlier this week.
Przemek Karnowski is a 7-foot-1, 300-pound monster. He is averaging 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. The senior has 10 blocks in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Junior Johnathan Williams stands at 6-foot-9 and averages 10.0 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Zach Collins comes off the bench for Gonzaga and is a force down low. The 7-foot, 230-pound forward averages 10.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Against Northwestern he racked up four blocks.
WVU’s goal will be to take away the threat down low and make the Bulldogs shoot 3s.
“It’s kind of what we try to do,” senior forward Nathan Adrian said. “We take away passes and make them start their offense further away from the basket and make the entry pass harder, make it easier on our bigs.”
Gonzaga ranks 66th in the country in 3-point shooting (37.4 percent). In the first round against South Dakota State, the Bulldogs were less than stellar from 3-point range, hitting 8-of-30.
And 3-point shooting was the main factor in Gonzaga’s 79-71 loss to BYU in the final regular season game of the year. The Cougars made nine from beyond the arc and the Bulldogs hit just three.
Senior guard Jordan Mathews averages 10.7 points and sophomore guard Josh Perkins averages 8.3 points.
The Mountaineers have some of the top of guards in the country.
Carter, Daxter Miles Jr. and Tarik Phillip combined for 54 points on 17-of-29 shooting from the field with nine rebounds, eight assists against Notre Dame. They shot 7 of 10 from 3-point range and 13 of 15 from the free-throw line.
“All year we’ve been telling ourselves that we got the best group of guards in the country, and we truly believe that,” Carter said. “So, when it’s time for us to play, we go out there and give it our all. Sometimes it worked. But we’re going to put forth 100 percent and we’re going to live and die with it.”
Carter (13.3 points) is the focal point of WVU’s offense and defense. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is seventh in the nation in steals.
Sophomore Esa Ahmad (11.3 points) is the second leading scorer for the Mountaineers. In his last 10 games, Elijah Macon is averaging 10.0 points and 6.4 boards.
Because WVU uses the entire length of the court, the Mountaineers play a rotation with 10 players averaging at least 11 minutes played per game.
Phillip averages 9.6 points per game and has made his last 11 free throws. Lamont West (5.7 points) can come off the bench and be a 3-point weapon for WVU.
This will be the fourth meeting between Gonzaga and the Mountaineers. The Bulldogs have won all three of the previous games.
Tipoff is slated for 7:39 p.m. EDT. The game will be televised nationally on TBS.
Cover Photo Credit: Shanna Rose, BGS