The Gonzaga Bulldogs return for a 14th seeded Mountaineers of West round action from the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Gonzaga will be making its 15th overall appearance at the Big Dance with a 16-14 all-time ledger. The Bulldogs needed an at-large bid this season after falling to Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship, 78-74 in overtime. Gonzaga also finished runner-up to the Gaels in the regular season despite posting a 13-3 record in the WCC and finishing 25-6 overall. This was the 15th straight year and 18th time in 20 seasons that Gonzaga reached the 20-win plateau -- the last 13 under the direction of head coach Mark Few. In addition to splitting its regular-season series with Saint Mary's, the Zags faced off against four other teams bound for the tournament including a split with fellow WCC member BYU. The Bulldogs stepped out of conference play to log wins against Notre Dame and Xavier while losing to Michigan State by seven. Gonzaga upended St. Johns as an 11-seed in last year's tournament before falling to BYU in the third round. The Zags have advanced as far as the Elite Eight once back in 1999 with a memorable run as the 10th seed, knocking off higher seeds Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before succumbing to eventual national champs UConn in the Regional Final. The Bulldogs have gone on to make four appearances in the Sweet 16 since then, the most recent in 2009, and have won at least one game in 10 of its trips to the NCAAs.
West Virginia is making its fifth consecutive trip to the NCAAs under head coach Bob Huggins and seventh appearance in the last eight seasons. The Mountaineers are just two years removed from a trip to the Final Four, their second such feat in 25 overall appearances, but exited in the third round of last year's tourney as a five-seed with a loss to Kentucky. WVU has made three appearances in the Elite Eight and one in the national championship game, losing to California in 1959. The Mountaineers were hard to figure coming down the stretch with just four wins in their final 11 regular-season games followed by a second-round 71-67 overtime loss to UConn in the Big East Tournament. The stretch left WVU at just 9-9 in the conference and 19-13 overall, though it did have a number of close defeats to top competition and a handful of nice wins earlier in the season. West Virginia pulled out a double- overtime victory over Kansas State, then dropped an overtime decision to Baylor during its non-conference slate. WVU went on to post wins against Georgetown and Cincinnati in overtime early in conference play but did little after. It's left to wonder whether its triumph at South Florida in the regular season finale was the difference in getting an NCAA nod.
This will be the first meeting between these two programs on the hardwood.
The Mountaineers cannot be overlooked in any matchup if not for the sheer presence of Big East Player of the Year Kevin Jones. The senior led the conference in scoring at 20.1 ppg and rebounding with 11.1 per contest, while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor. Fellow senior Darryl Bryant ranks seventh in the Big East with a 17.2-point average and stands among the league leaders in three-pointers with 69 on 30.8 percent shooting. Junior Deniz Kilicli gives the Mountaineers a third double-figure scoring option with 10.7 ppg and adds 5.4 boards while connecting on 50.2 percent of his field goals. Freshman Jabarie Hinds tops the roster with 3.3 assists per game and chips in 7.6 ppg. Overall, West Virginia posts a decent 71.6 ppg -- good for fourth in the Big East -- and shoots 44.1 percent from the field. The Mountaineer defense leaves a bit to be desired, though, surrendering 66.2 ppg and allowing the league's second-highest field-goal percentage at 44.6 percent. WVU could stand to improve its free-throw shooting percentage (67.1 percent) and have the conference's second-worst three-point shooting percentage (30.2 percent). One source of strength for WVU is in the rebounding game where they own the second-best margin in the Big East at plus-6.7 (38.4-31.6).
The Bulldogs struck a successful balance on offense this season despite lacking a true go-to scorer. The Zags ended the year with a freshman leading the team in scoring, as Kevin Pangos was named WCC Newcomer of the Year for averaging 13.8 points per game and a team-best 3.4 assists. Even more impressive is Pangos' 75 three-pointers -- second-best in the league -- falling at a crisp 40.5-percent accuracy. Junior Elias Harris is a crucial part of the Zags' success, posting 13.1 ppg and 8.7 rebounds -- second-most in the WCC. Both he and senior Robert Sacre shoot 50.5 percent from the field with the latter averaging 11.7 ppg, 6.3 boards and 1.5 blocks as the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. Gary Bell Jr. gives the Zags four double-figure scoring options, netting an even 10.0 ppg while contributing 46 threes on a league-leading 47.4 percent shooting. The Bulldogs lead the WCC in three-point shooting percentage at 37.6 percent. Sam Dower paces the squad in field-goal percentage (54.6 percent) and adds 8.5 ppg to the mix. Overall, Gonzaga puts up a solid 74.0 ppg and shoots 47.3 percent from the floor -- good for 30th in the country. However, the Bulldogs stand out the most on defense, holding teams to 63.2 ppg and 41.4 percent shooting -- both marks standing second in the WCC. The Zags also own the second-best rebounding margin in the conference at plus-6.5 (37.1-30.6).