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2017 NCAA Tournament game preview: Gonzaga face major challenges with West Virginia

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Questions and concerns will be answered Thursday, for better or worse

Northwestern v Gonzaga Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

For the third year in a row and the eighth time in school history, Gonzaga is in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. On its course, the Bulldogs beat the 8 seed Northwestern Wildcats earning Mark Few his 500th win.

But outside of the locker room, there was somehow little celebrating for Zag faithful. After a 18 point lead at half, Gonzaga faltered and allowed Northwestern to claw their way back into the game before securing the 79-73 victory. The second half saw a litany of mental errors, which after the game led many to ask “what’s going to happen against Press Virginia?”

Yesterday, Keith Ybanez pondered over just that. West Virginia offers a defensive look and style that Gonzaga has not seen all year. But is West Virginia more than a highly-conditioned offensive impotence and turnover machine? How does the rest of their game impact Gonzaga and how does Gonzaga affect them?

Meet our opponent

West Virginia Mountaineers 28-8 (12-6), KenPom 6

West Virginia was the last team many of us wanted to see in our part of the bracket. They are the ideal opponent to take on a lot of what Gonzaga does well and what they do poorly. West Virginia’s pacing is definitely nothing similar to what the Zags see in the WCC. Sure, BYU’s adjusted tempo is fourth in the country, but they’re 87th in adjusted defense. West Virginia is a hectic fifth ranked adjusted defense that loves to get-up-and-down as much as Gonzaga does.

The Mountaineers proved themselves throughout the season with big wins against Baylor, Kansas and at Virginia. In a tough Big 12 conference, they forced the most turnovers of anybody in college basketball and capture the most steals. WVU scores most of their points through opponents’ reeling transition defense.

The team also relies heavily on rebounding. The Mountaineers are fifth in the country in offensive rebounds. In their last game against Notre Dame, rebounding wasn’t a problem as they shot 50 percent from the field and an absurd 57 percent from behind the arc (they normally shoot 36.7 percent). Team leader Jevon Carter led the team with 24 points and was four for five behind the arc.

Carter is the focal point for what Bobby Huggins wants to do. He’ll take out your best offensive threat in the back court while giving it his best on both sides of the court. Carter averages 13.2 points, 3.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds. Sophomore Era Ahmad is the second leading scorer for the Mountaineers and could be the biggest unknown entering Thursday night’s game. Ahmad is a mismatch in their three forward lineup, but could struggle if matched up with guys like Johnathan Williams or Killian Tillie.

What to watch out for

Free Throws will be crucial

The keys to beating West Virginia are things the Zags have seemed to struggle with over the last month. Because of the frenetic pace of their press, West Virginia will undoubtedly foul while going all out. Gonzaga has been less than consistent from the line this year. After shooting 80 percent in their last two WCC tournament games, the Zags shot 44.4 and 63.9 percent against South Dakota State and Northwestern. Gonzaga will need to at least shoot at their season average of 72.7 percent to stay in this game, especially in the bonus late in the second half.

How much 1-3-1 can we expect?

West Virginia will dare the Bulldogs to prove themselves from the perimeter to start the game. Seeing what has worked defensively against Gonzaga in the tournament, Huggins will have no problem deploying a tactic he’s used throughout the season. It will be up to the guards to make the Mountaineers respect their shot and open passing and driving lanes that Gonzaga has routinely abused throughout the season.

Is Gonzaga as ill-equipped to the press as everybody thinks?

A lot has been made in this week’s lead-up that Gonzaga is in for a whooping when they finally face WVU. And to be clear, the press is not a joke. But in trying to devalue the Zags’ season averages due to a lackluster conference, a lot of fans and outsiders have turned Josh Perkins and to some degree Nigel Williams-Goss into lesser guards.

A hobbled Perkins has struggled offensively over the last month, but he’s also committed just two turnovers in his last 124 minutes (one in 56 minutes of tournament play). Perhaps scarred by the ending of that BYU game, Gonzaga fans speak of Perkins as a major liability. He will unquestionably be the biggest X-factor in the game, as Carter will do his best to shut down Williams-Goss and keep the ball out of his hands.

Perkins has been criticized for playing tight or trying to do too much and that could be a problem against the press. Getting past the time line is one thing with 40 minutes of hell, not losing your cool for the rest of the possession is a whole ‘nother. Perkins shot and passing will be large determinants for whether or not the Zags play on Saturday.

Who logs more minutes: Collins or Karnowski?

In two tournament games, the workflow has shifted. Zach Collins entered the national stage both offensively and defensively while ensuring that Gonzaga moves on. Meanwhile, Przemek Karnowski has sat on the sidelines, with a style and size that proved to be ill-equipped for undersized lineups and packed lanes. Many skeptics wonder if Karnowski has the endurance to take on the press and play major minutes. But the front court for West Virginia is just too favorable for Few and company not to try and take advantage of the senior big’s size.

Game info

Time: 4:39 PM PT
TV: TBS (Brian Anderson and Chris Webber with Lewis Johnson)
Radio: Gonzaga IMG Radio Network (Tom Hudson and Matt Santangelo)
Online: March Madness Live