The Zags and Mountaineers will battle twice this season, who will take round one in Spokane?
Eight months ago, Gonzaga fans were very anxious. Fresh off a WCC title game loss, the Zags were faced with a familiar situation in the NCAA Tournament. As a higher seed, the Bulldogs were slated to travel all the way to the Eastern time zone to face a difficult opponent. A few years before, Mark Few had to take his team out east to take on Davidson in their backyard and, last year, they went to Pittsburgh to face West Virginia. While most fans were resigned to the fact that this would be a one and done tournament, the Bulldogs had no trepidation about taking on WVU. Former Zag, now LA Laker, Rob Sacre had this great quote about GU's mindset heading to Pittsburgh:
"Hit 'em, is all you've got to say. Hit 'em, be physical, let everything else work itself out. As long as you're physical, that's all that matters. Show that Gonzaga's not soft."
Gonzaga fans know how that tournament game went. The Bulldogs shut up every national pundit that said they were too soft to take down such a tough Big East club and they utterly annihalated the Mountaineers, 77-54. It was a great performance. Not only was the senior center Sacre excellent, but it was the freshmen backcourt duo that burst on the scene. Many, including myself, were nervous about Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos leading this team in their first NCAA Tournament game and they quickly showed why we had nothing to be scared of. The incredible duo had 27 points, 6 boards, and 6 assists.
Now, the headline will be "can the Mountaineers get revenge?" Oddly enough, even though these teams played just eight months ago, they have each changed quite a bit. Rob Sacre's departure changed this team more than most think. Sure, the Zags don't need to replace huge offensive production but they do need to show they can adjust to what they are missing on the defensive end. Rob was an imposing force that was a versatile defender and, as we look at the Mountaineers, they are extremely skilled down low.
The main name to know is La Salle transfer Aaric Murray. The 6'10'', 250 lb transfer has all the tools to not only dominate the Big 12 but also make a name for himself in the NBA. At La Salle, he averaged 15 and 8 and did it in a multitude of ways. He can bang in the post, he can run the floor, and he can hit the open jumper. Without overhyping him anymore, Zag fans should be worried about Murray. Guarding him will be a challenge. Rob was a guy that could defend a player like Murray but with Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower, there is concern that Murray could have a big day. It will be very intriguing to see how Huggins uses Murray. If he pounds it early and often, we might see some early fouls and the Kelly Olynyk suspension could really become a factor. Murray isn't a one man show. In the post he is joined by returning forward Deniz Kilicli. The 260 lb. post player has turned himself into a very skilled post player and he'll be a force and another hard one to handle for the Zags.
While it would be hard to expect this team to defend WVU as well as they did last year, it will be key for Mark Few to somehow find a way to use his shorthanded post rotation to slow down Murray and company. The good news for the Zags is that they have the clear advantage on the perimeter. Coach Huggins is still working to find the ideal rotation for his club on the outside and they should struggle to shoot from outside. If that is the case, GU can sag into the paint and help out their bigs. I will also personally be watching to see if Few employs any type of early pressure to take WVU out of their halfcourt game. With such a skilled frontcourt, it would be good to see the Zags force their will on the Mountaineers rather than letting Murray and Kilicli sit in the post.
Either way, this is going to be one heck of a fun game. Both teams have very big ambitions but both are still looking to see how their team gels. A big early season win always helps the gelling process and I think the Bulldogs get a 75-67 win.