It is almost a foregone conclusion nowadays that come March, the Gonzaga Bulldogs will be placed somewhere on a bracket. It is the 14th consecutive season that Coach Mark Few (and Coach Dan Monson for the first year) have piloted the Zags through the regular season into the NCAA field. The Zags have been a No. 7 seed one time before in 2008. That team lost to the Stephen Curry Davidson Wildcats like a lot of teams lost to the Wildcats during Curry's shooting run through the tournament. For all of the hullabaloo about making it to the tourney 14 straight times, Gonzaga hasn't exactly enjoyed success there. The Zags have only been to the Sweet Sixteen five times, and only advanced to the Elite Eight once - and that was on the magical "The Slipper Still Fits" run of 1999 (thanks Gus Johnson). Could this year finally be the year? Seeding probably suggests otherwise, but lets still meet the opponent anyway.
Record: 19-13 (9-9 Big East); RPI: 57; Last Year: Lost to Kentucky in the second round
What to know: The Mountaineers are coached by Bob Huggins who came from Kansas State back in 2007. They are best represented by senior mountain-man Kevin Jones, who fills up stat sheets like flapjacks on a backwater diner's breakfast plate. Jones averages 20.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and one block on very efficient shooting: 51.3% from the field and 78% from the free throw line.
After Jones, the Mountaineers are led by senior guard Darryl Bryant. Bryant averages 17.2 points a game, but he also does it off of quantity rather than quality. He only is shooting 36% from the floor and 30% from the three point line. He is a solid defender averaging over a steal a game and also takes care of the ball, sitting pretty at only 2.4 turnovers a game. Between the two, they account for over half of West Virginia's scoring a game.
Both will be a handful to guard and both are saavy veterans who have been here before. Each player was on the 2010 Mountaineers team that lost to Duke in the championship game. But take one of the two out of the game, and West Virginia is a different team. In most of their losses either Jones or Bryant has averaged less than 15 points. This has usually been Bryant and he often puts up a stinker with some pretty atrocious shooting numbers to boot, including a 3-17 night in a loss against Louisville and a 3-11 night against Notre Dame.
What they need to do to win: West Virginia needs to remember this game will be a virtual home game for them and play some solid Big East basketball. That means they need to bully Gonzaga into submission. The Bulldogs have too many players who can take over a game for West Virginia to do anything but play solid team defense. If the team buys into this concept, they have a very solid chance at pulling the upset. West Virginia struggled to close out the season, losing eight of their final 13 games - with two of the wins coming in OT. They need to rediscover their early season mojo that saw wins over Georgetown and Kansas State.
Record: 25-6 (13-3 West Coast); RPI: 25; Last Year: Lost to BYU in the second round
What to know: For the first time in 12 years, the Bulldogs were not the West Coast Conference Champions. Coach Few has called this one of his most talented teams to date, and although we hear coaches say that all the time, portions of that statement are true. The Bulldogs are quite balanced in both the front and back court. Robert Sacre and Elias Harris make up a very solid low post presence, while Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr are more then capable of scoring from long range. The Bulldogs have four starters averaging at least 10 points. Even if someone is having a rough shooting night, there are usually complementary buckets falling from someone else.
Senior center Robert Sacre is the heart and soul of the team, although it may not look it statistically. He is the reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game. He will have his hands full guarding Jones, but Sacre is a big seven footer more than capable of holding his ground. Gonzaga's back court has been quite stellar all considering it is a couple of freshmen hanging out there. Kevin Pangos leads the team in minutes and in points scored. He is not afraid to take an open three, and tied the Gonzaga record with nine three pointers made in a game against Washington State earlier this year.
What they need to do to win: Robert Sacre needs to show up to this game. The senior's stats took a step back this year, and although he brings out plenty of emotion, he will need to match up against Jones and stay out of foul trouble. After Sacre, the Bulldogs have junior Sam Dower who can be a defensive liability at times and freshmen Ryan Spangler. Gonzaga also needs to take care of the ball. A freshmen back court often times makes freshmen mistakes, and in their losses to BYU and Michigan State the Bulldogs turned the ball over 19 times. That kind of carelessness will pretty much guarantee a loss in the tournament. Kevin Pangos has some pretty severe home/road splits, and as this is basically a home game for West Virginia, he will have to settle down and make good shots. Gonzaga's offense best works when both the interior and outside shots are falling.
Who will be advancing: The location of this game will be a big boon to West Virginia, but Mark Few schedules Gonzaga's yearly brutal non-conference schedule for this reason. West Virginia could very well step into the spotlight and have a big game. If Bryant's shots start falling Gonzaga could be in real trouble, but Gary Bell Jr is a very underrated defender on the wing. West Virginia needs to have defensive answers for both Pangos and Elias Harris, and then just hope that Sacre doesn't have a big night. If Gonzaga gets a run in and stretches the lead to 10, they have a good chance at winning. But if West Virginia keeps it close, they could just as easily pull it out. In the end, the Mountaineers are too heavily reliant on two players, one of which doesn't even score his points in a productive way at all. The Bulldogs have too many scoring options. Gonzaga advances.
Check out our Gonzaga team blog The Slipper Still Fits. For more coverage of Gonzaga in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, visit SB Nation Seattle's StoryStream. Click here for a link to our NCAA bracket 2012.
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