SCOUTING THE BULLDOGS
The Zags look very similar to the team that routed the Mountaineers in the second round of the NCAA tournament this past March. The Bulldogs have four returning starters and three other lettermen with substantial playing time, so it shouldn't be difficult to figure out what experienced head coach Mark Few will put on the floor for the opener. The challenge will be in defending a talented group that features experience and depth. In the backcourt, sophomore Kevin Pangos is expected to set the pace. While he wasn't a great outside shooter, he scored 13.6 points per game and set up teammates with nearly 3.5 assists per outing. His control of last year's game was a key factor in the win. He will be supported off the bench by senior Mike Hart, who started more than half of the games last year and figures to be a glue guy and defensive stopper. Fellow soph Gary Bell, who averaged 10.4 points per game in 2012-13, will be the second starter.
In the frontcourt, established vets Elias Harris (13.1 points, 8.5 rebounds) and Guy Landry Edi (5.5 points) and Sam Dower (7.6 points, 3.3 rebounds) will reprise their roles as leaders, and all have the ability to spring for a double-double on any particular night. There are some newcomers to watch as well, including 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski, who scored a total of 29 points in the Zags' two exhibition wins.
Gonzaga's biggest strength, however, is a "sum of its parts" thing. Most every player on Few's roster knows his role, and doesn't try to do things he can't. The result is a finely meshed squad that limits mistakes, moves the ball crisply and doesn't make poor decisions. With a veteran-laden team (five seniors and juniors, plus three sophomores who played major roles a year ago, the Zags are poised for another West Coast Conference title run.
Last year, WVU collapsed under Gonzaga's steady effort, committing turnovers and making poor decisions while the Zags ran their offense with utmost efficiency. West Virginia's patience and poise will be severely tested on Gonzaga's home court.
McCarthey Athletic Center
To achieve that, West Virginia must disrupt Gonzaga's offense. It has to get the ball out of Pangos' hands and force GU away from its efficient offensive system. It will also have to rebound misses effectively and get some scores in transition – one of Bob Huggins' stated goals since he returned to WVU six years ago. Success in that area has been hit-or-miss at best, but to get a win on the road over GU, the Mountaineers will likely have to get into double-digits in terms of transition points. That's not easy against a team as disciplined as the Zags.
WVU must also get contributions up and down its lineup in order to match Gonzaga's depth. Mark Few can put ten different players on the floor capable of filling out one or more columns in the stat book, and in order to complete the Mountaineers can't depend on just a handful of players, as it has over the past three seasons. Huggins, who initially expressed optimism over his team's depth, pulled back a great deal after the Mountaineers' exhibition win over Glenville, noting a lack of effort on the part of one or more players who are expected to contribute. Whether that was just a Huggs motivational tactic or a sign of things to come, there's no way to tell, but it's surely a key in this contest. West Virginia will have to have least eight or nine players fill their roles and play well to have a chance in one of the most difficult season openers in school history.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins is 1-2 against Gonzaga, with both losses coming to the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament. In addition to last year's blowout, Huggs' 2002-03 Cincinnati team dropped a 74-69 decision in the first round of that year's tourney.
* * *
Gonzaga forced 28 turnovers and committed just nine of their own in their season-opening 103-65 win over Southern Utah.
* * *
Twenty-four of the last 25 senior members of the WVU men's basketball team have graduated on time or early since 2004. That total includes three members of the 2010-11 team earned both their bachelor and master's degrees while playing at WVU: Joe Mazzulla, Cam Thoroughman and Jonnie West.
In 2010 and 2011, WVU men's basketball was also recognized nationally for ranking in the top 10 percent nationally among men's basketball programs for the Academic Progress Rate (APR). The team also had a 100 percent Graduation Success Rate (GSR) score in the NCAA's latest annual release covering the 2002-03 to the 2005-06 period.
* * *
One of the toughest things to judge in preseason is a team's defensive ability. That remains a key for Bob Huggins squads, however, and will certainly be a big factor in this game. West Virginia will have to play good fundamental defense and communicate well to hold the Zags in check and prevent a repeat of last year's defensive meltdown.
That game, in which Gonzaga shot 56% on an assortment of wide-open tries, was one of just 28 times that a Bob Huggins-led Mountaineer squad has allowed its opponent to shoot 50 percent or better. WVU has held foes under 50% in 148 games under the defensive-minded head coach.