The Gonzaga Bulldogs will square off against No. 4 seed West Virginia when March Madness resumes action on Thursday. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that means the Zags will have to solve
West Press Virginia’s vaunted defense in order to move on to the Elite Eight.
West Virginia has undergone a philosophical transformation since the Zags last saw them in 2012 (once in the NCAA Tournament and at the start of the following season). Over the last three seasons, Bob Huggins has implemented a full-court trapping defense that has earned the Mountaineers the “Press Virginia” moniker.
While the nickname is catchy and makes for a good t-shirt, playing against it is not very fun. The Mountaineers implement the press with full commitment and are relentless in their pursuit to harry and flummox opponents.
Most pressure defenses are designed to strangle opponents into submission, but West Virginia’s takes a different approach by ramping up the aggressiveness and forcing opponents to play too fast for their own good. It’s no surprise then that the Mountaineers are second in the country in opponent’s average possession length, and lead the country in forcing turnovers at an absurd 27.7% rate—two percent more than the next closest team.
So what then, are the Zags to do? It starts on the defensive end. The Zags will need to lean heavily on their own #1 ranked defensive unit to reduce West Virginia’s opportunities to set up its traps. Limiting West Virginia’s opportunities to set up its defense by reducing the amount of times the ball has to be inbounded after a made basket is the most significant way Gonzaga can help itself alleviate the amount of pressure it will see.
While Gonzaga’s defensive intensity will need to replicate the first half of the Northwestern game, at some point West Virginia will score. Spatial awareness and attention to detail will need to be heightened to get the ball across halfcourt. It’s easier said than done, but Gonzaga’s guards must avoid getting pushed to the corners on inbounding sequences. The Mountaineers are ruthless when they pin a ballhandler in the corner. Just ask Notre Dame.
The guards will need to “bounce off” defenders to create space and keep moving to create bigger passing windows and give themselves a chance to advance the ball in motion. Whoever inbounds the ball must take advantage of being able to run the baseline after made baskets. This isn’t available in any other inbounds situation, so the Zags have to utilize it when they have it to create better passing angles.
Look for Gonzaga to station one of the frontcourt players in the middle of the inbounding side of the court to provide another option and create a pressure release valve. This will also help create weakside passing options with ball reversals, and allow the guards to streak up the sideline and avoid corner traps.
Once the ball is in play, the Zags have to attack the press rather than let it close on the ballhandlers. Aggressive and decisive play while staying under control will be the name of the game. I have no concerns about Nigel Williams-Goss finding a workable tempo, but Josh Perkins has to have his A-game and resist the urge to split every trap and play on fast-forward. Perkins profiles as the type of player who is most susceptible to West Virginia’s system, and he might hold the Zags’ fortunes in his hands.
If the Zags can break West Virginia’s traps, they will find a lot of easy scoring opportunities with the defense out of position. Consistently breaking the press will force the Mountaineers to drop back into their halfcourt defense where the Zags will have a significant advantage. West Virginia isn’t designed to bang in the halfcourt against a premier interior attack, and Gonzaga can have its way if the bigs are given clean post-up opportunities.
This Sweet 16 matchup will be a great defensive battle, and a chess match between two teams desperate to shake off past disappointments and move one step closer to the Final Four. If the Zags can take care of the ball and make good decisions with the ball, I like their chances to move on.