The “Backyard Brawl” is not dead afterall.
When the NCAA tournament pairings were announced on Sunday, West Virginia was given a 10th seed and paired with Gonzaga, the No. 7 seed in the East Region. And where will that first-round game be played? In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Who would have thought the next game West Virginia had would be played in Pittsburgh? And the opponent would not be the Panthers?
Gonzaga is located in Spokane, Washington. The nickname is the Bulldogs, but everybody calls the team the “Zags”. The little-known West Coast Conference is Gonzaga’s home.
Coach Mark Few attempts to collect his schedule around several made-for-television games that also benefit his coffers. Few has the deserved reputation of always having a team capable of an NCAA tournament upset. Few’s contemporaries are Butler and Valparaiso — two other overlooked “mid majors” that annually take down a prideful team from one of the more noted conferences.
This will be Gonzaga’s 13th straight year in the NCAA tournament. The Zags have actually made more upset noise during the regular seasons
of Few’s tenure because their overall NCAA postseason record is just 12-12. No national championships. No national championship games. No Final Four appearances for Gonzaga.
Few’s teams have always won at least 23 games. His winning pecentage is .795.
Intelligence has always been a trademark of Gonzaga teams. And so have quirky players with bales of hair and loads of tattoos. There are not as many hairy players this year, but just as many tattoos. Coach Few brought Notre Dame to Spokane and beat the same Fighting Irish team that bounced West Virginia twice. Beat them by 20 points.
Other notable wins were over Arizona, Butler, and Xavier. The overall record was 25-6 and with the exception of a defeat given the Zags in Spokane by Michigan State all the losses were on the road or on neutral courts. Conference rival St. Marys defeated Gonzaga in two of the three games between the teams.
West Virginia and Gonzaga have several team traits in common. Neither has any consistent depth. Dominique Rutledge, Aaron Brown, and Gary Browne are West Virginia’s give-relief threesome. Gonzaga attempts to go four-deep with its bench, but finds good fortune if two players can contribute much at all. Four players off the bench average more than 10 minutes of court-time per game.
One possibly overlooked advantage coming West Virginia’s way is that Gonzaga has to come to Pittsburgh from the Pacific Time Zone where it is three hours earlier. Moving that many time zones away and playing at an hour unusual to them can’t help the Zags. Losing at Illinois was the farthest east Gonzaga wandered this season. They didn’t play in the Eastern Time Zone at all.
Four of Gonzaga’s starters average in double figures in scoring. The most dangerous players are point guard Kevin Pangos and forward Elias Harris.
Robert Sacre is a 7-foot center, but hardly dominates anything. Sam Dower is 6-foot-9, but is the only player unable to score in double figures. The other guard is 6-foot-1 Gary Bell with his 10 points a game average. Guy Landry-Edi (6-foot-6) could start instead of Dower.
The only common opponent is Oral Roberts. Both West Virginia and Gonzaga beat the Golden Eagles, a team that finished at 27-6 and was relegated to the NIT.
In most of Gonzaga’s losses there were shooting lapses and barren minutes against zone defenses. West Virginia has been successful with its 1-3-1 zone and will assuredly show the Zags that defense if the Mountaineers have a slender lead and want to waste time off the clock.
Past Gonzaga teams have played with large chips on their shoulders and lost their stony resolve if the flow of play did not favor them. The Deniz Kilicli versus center Sacre duel might just see some spoken sparks and colliding-body sparks fly.
Rutledge is 6-foot-8 and with Gonzaga having a front line that has a threesome that are 7-foot-0, 6-foot-9, and 6-foot-7, he could be a vital factor — either as a rebounder and defender of some worth or as a failure because of foul trouble.
At least West Virginia will be the de facto home team, holding a large “home crowd” advantage. There should be 4,000-6,000 Mountaineer fans chanting and exhorting their side to whipsaw the Bulldogs. The Consol Energy Center, completed in 2010, replaces the old “Igloo” Arena which stood next door, but has now been completely dismantled and is gone. The new facility seats 19,100 for basketball.
Tickets on StubHub begin at $105 and those are high up in a level where only those unafraid of heights and with powerful binoculars can venture. The seats within 100-feet of the court are valued at over $300. Not many West Virginia University students will break into their beer-money piggy banks to attend the 7:20 p.m. game on Thursday night.
The Mountaineers don’t ride in on a cresting wave of late-season success. Instead, they lost in their first game of the Big East tournament . . . and lost eight of their final 12 games to limp into the NCAA tournament.
Starting forward Keaton Miles doesn’t score. Point guards Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne have not been able to shoot well from anywhere on the court. Those are three freshmen. Another freshman, Aaron Brown, didn’t do well in the last 12 games. Rutledge simply can’t make free throws. And he commits a ton of fouls . . . as do Kilicli and Darryl “Truck” Bryant.
Too many fouls will kick West Virginia out of the tournament.
Just how wide is the back of senior forward Kevin Jones? Mostly, it’s as wide as the Mississippi River at its mouth. When it is only as wide as the Grand Canyon, the Mountaineers lose.
Bryant actually averages 17 points a game. If WVU beats Gonzaga, he will be making free throw after free throw as the game winds down. An ordinary showing by Bryant and West Virginia will have lost for ninth time in its final 13 games.
A win over the Zags would move WVU to a Saturday meeting against the winner of the second-seeded Ohio State vs. 15th-seeded Loyola (Maryland) game.
West Virginia will hustle. Will compete. Gonzaga will be cool and confident and as proud as a flock of peacocks. Gonzaga won’t want to be ruffled and won’t like the body contact it sees from the pound-ahead Mountaineers.
Bob Huggins has been at WVU for five years. West Virginia has been in the NCAA tournament in all of those seasons, even reaching a Final Four.
This “Backyard Brawl” is against a team from nearly 3,000 miles away. This “Backyard Brawl” is against an opponent WVU never sees . . . except on television . . . but will have no problem disliking and expending energy to make uncomfortable.