Bulldogs players, particularly center Robert Sacre, repeatedly expressed how much they were looking forward to the chance to play a WVU team that will embrace a physical style.
But the Mountaineers’ Deniz Kilicli wasn’t buying into the hype that this game will be a grind-it-out affair any more than the team’s games in Big East play.
“I think they’re very physical for their conference,” Kilicli said. “But we play [in the] Big East. I play guys like Sacre and [Elias] Harris 16, 17 times. You know? So I think they’re not going to be as prepared as we are. But they’re definitely physical, and they want to play physical.”
In fact, though the Zags (25-6) have repeatedly remarked at the physical nature of West Virginia’s play, senior guard Truck Bryant said he doesn’t see this particular Mountaineer team as overtly aggressive in that facet of play.
“Everybody thinks we’re the most physical team,” Bryant remarked. “I guess that’s just how hard we play. We don’t even know we’re physical. We just play hard for 40 minutes. That’s just something we want to do and keep going.”
As with most of the opponents WVU (19-13) has faced this season, Gonzaga figures to try to focus its defensive efforts on stopping senior forward Kevin Jones.
Teams have had mixed success in doing so this season. Jones averages 20.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, but when opponents have keyed especially on him, he has occasionally gone quiet.
The most recent example came in last week’s 71-67 overtime loss to UConn in the Big East tournament second round. Jones scored 25 points, but was held off the board for a long stretch to end the game as the Huskies made their rally.
Jones was asked if he and Bryant, as senior leaders, need to demand the ball more often, or if they should rely on teammates to knock down open shots.
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” the Mount Vernon, N.Y., native said. “Definitely as a senior leader, kind of a go-to guy, me and Truck are definitely out there to make sure we get the ball late in games, kind of demand it more. Our teammates have to do a better job of either finding us or taking advantage of them denying us. I think our teammates kind of look around and look for us to do something instead of making their own play.”
Bryant can’t afford to do that, according to coach Bob Huggins, if the Mountaineers are to counter the Bulldogs’ talented freshman guards Gary Bell, Jr., and Kevin Pangos -- who both average double figures.
“Make open shots,” Huggins said when asked what Bryant must do for WVU to find success. “Truck has struggled at times to make open shots. He’s our best perimeter shooter. He’s our No. 1 option on the perimeter.
“I mean, K.J. has been pretty consistent. When neither one of those guys play well, we’re pretty bad. When we get both of them playing well on the same night, we’re pretty good.”
Huggins again quipped about the shaky nature of WVU’s bus rides when asked about the travel disparity between the Mountaineers and Gonzaga.
But he acknowledged the fact that, if nothing else, the crowd should be in West Virginia’s favor at Consol Energy Center.
“Hopefully our people find ways to get tickets and we have a nice crowd here,” Huggins said. “When you have 550 tickets, 8,000 season ticket holders, it doesn’t go as far as you’d like for it to. Hopefully they find ways to get tickets and we have a great crowd here. Generally they do.”
Zags coach Mark Few called Huggins “one of the last great characters” in the coaching profession, praise Huggins deflected a bit -- while finding a way to do one of his favorite things: chiding the media.
“There’s just so much more attention now,” he said. “With social media ... I mean, could you imagine some of the other guys, old guys? I think there’s still characters. They just do it behind closed doors now. I mean, I know just about everybody here in this field. There’s guys that are funny and have a lot of fun. You can’t do things as public as what guys used to do.
“Social media. Not even blaming [reporters] this time,” Huggins concluded, drawing laughs. “It’s social media.”
As seniors, Bryant and Jones had sage advice for the freshmen about how to embrace their first opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“Growing up, this is something you live for, to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Bryant said. “To be in this position, you can make things happen or you can go home in one game. From here on out, it’s win or lose. It’s something we put in their heads: we have to give it our all every game.”
“We definitely try to encourage them not to be shy,” Jones added. “This isn’t a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it’s not an opportunity that everybody gets, so take advantage of it and cherish the moment and you’ll be fine. Just play hard.”