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March 12, 2012

Staying close

WVU to open tourney vs. Gonzaga in Pittsburgh

MORGANTOWN — Once upon a time Gonzaga was an NCAA dream team, with a modern-day Pistol Pete Maravich in Adam Morrison who came out of the West with unruly hair, adorned by a mustache and jump shot that was good from anywhere.

In his junior season he scored 30 or more points 13 times, five of them for 40 or more points. He captured the imagination of the nation as he led them into a Sweet Sixteen matchup with UCLA, roaring from behind to wipe out a 17-point deficit only to lose in the final seconds, seconds that were marked by Morrison breaking down in tears and collapsing on the floor while the game was still being played.

Morrison is gone now, but Gonzaga is still around winning basketball games and they will be West Virginia’s opponent in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Mountaineers were labeled with a No. 10 seed in the East and drew the No. 7 Zags in a game that will be played at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center on Thursday.

WVU brings a 19-13 record into the game and comes in off an undistinguished finish to the season in which it lost eight of its last 12 games.

Despite the late-season flameout, Coach Bob Huggins never doubted that his team had a secure spot in the tournament for the fifth consecutive season, the seventh in the past eight years and the 25th time in the program’s history.

“I don’t know any more than anyone else does but when all those (experts) have you a 10, you’re probably a 10,” said Huggins. “We were pretty much a consensus 10. Nobody ever talked about us being on the bubble, and when you watch the (ESPN bottom line) they always had us a lock. I thought with the South Florida win we were in.”

The Mountaineers were not bothered by the low seed.

“It’s cool,” senior guard Truck Bryant said. “I’m ready to play. Let’s get going.”

This, of course, will write the final chapter on Bryant and senior leader Kevin Jones’ story at West Virginia, both well aware that their next loss is their last.

Gonzaga, coached by Mark Few, is mostly a mystery team in these parts. It is located in Spokane, Wash., where it compiled a 25-6 record and spent a lot of time in the Top 25.

“I’ve known Fewy for many years and we’ve played them a couple of times when I was at Cincinnati, but I don’t know a lot about them right now,” said Huggins. “I will here in a while.”

“This is new territory for us,” Jones admitted. “They are not familiar to us. We haven’t seen them much.”

While WVU gets most of its scoring from Jones and Bryant — Jones being the Big East scoring and rebounding champion — Gonzaga has balanced scoring with 6-1 guard Kevin Pangos averaging 13.8 points a game and Elias Harris, a 6-7 forward, averaging 13.

They do have a problem who could give the Mountaineers some trouble inside in 7-foot center Robert Sacre, who averages 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.

But if WVU is unfamiliar with Gonzaga, they, too, are unfamiliar with the Mountaineers and the physical brand of ball they play.

That he is unfamiliar with Gonzaga doesn’t bother Huggins.

“There are only so many things that you can do. Basketball comes down to a couple things. You can’t really get more than three guys involved in a play. You have to figure out a way to get the other two guys out of the way,” Huggins said.

“It’s all about numbers and trying to get the number in your favor. There are only so many ways to do that. I have had to tell Deniz a number of times that if the big guy goes out on the wing, they are going to back screen you. Anytime there is a cross screen, there is a down screen. It is all the same stuff, but it is a matter of how you get into it.”

And while his players said they had begun working on some new wrinkles since returning from the Big East Tournament, Huggins wasn’t sure he would do much differently.

“We can’t change much,” he said. “I have tried to outsmart them, but our opponent was more prepared to run it than our guys were.”

If WVU can get past Gonzaga, No. 2 seed Ohio State awaits on Saturday.

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