By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Coaches do a whole lot with their Xs and their Os, but in the end a basketball game often comes down to sweat and muscle, to one team imposing its style of play on the other and using it to win.
No. 10-seed West Virginia University’s second-round NCAA Championship meeting with Gonzaga at 7:20 p.m. today at the Consol Energy Center is just that kind of game, Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers needing to make it a physical encounter against a team that doesn’t often face that kind of challenge.
“Well, it’s a different style on the West Coast but I think when you go against West Virginia, it’s more physical,” the Zags’ 250-pound center Robert Sacre said. “I think just in the Big East, you look at the Big East teams, they’re very physical, very strong inside. It’s much more of a power game.”
“We’re prepared for a physical game,” high-scoring guard Kevin Pangos said. “We know they’re going to come out, crash the glass, really be physical with our guards and posts. We’ve been stressing that a lot. We’ve got to be just as physical.”
The question becomes then can Gonzaga elbow its way past the Mountaineers?
“I think they are very physical in their conference,” WVU center Deniz Kilicli said. “But we play in the Big East.”
He said that not as a statement of fact, but more as a warning.
“I play guys like Sacre and Harris 16 times, 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.
“So we will see what’s going to happen. I think we are going to beat them on the physical end.”
There is, nationally, a perception that teams from the West Coast are soft, that they play a skill game that relies on speed and shooting rather than defense and rebounding.
“I feel sometimes we give that impression,” Sacre said. “But if you look at even BYU last night, they grinded it out. They were physical with Brandon Davies and Hartsock. The mentality of basketball in the West Coast is changing, becoming a more physical game. It’s great to see that.
“You know what? I feel we can compete with any team in the country,” Sacre concluded.
West Virginia, too, believes it can compete with anyone. Huggins often points out that they have lost 10 games by a combined total of 29 points, most of the close losses coming when they failed to finish off a game they had led in, often with Kevin Jones disappearing the final minutes as teams took him away.
“We haven’t finished games,” Huggins admitted. “If it was just one guy that was screwing it up all the time, I wouldn’t play him in the second half. But it hasn’t been. It’s different guys.
“You know, you could go down through all those games and it’s not always the same guy, not the same guy who throws the ball away, not always the same guy who commits some other kind of turnover, not the same guy that, you know, with an opportunity to put the game way goes to the foul line and doesn’t make shots.
“It’s been a team effort.”
And as for Jones dominating for the first 35 minutes and then being throttled, Huggins says you can’t put one reason for it.
“K.J. is not going to force things,” he said. “He’s not going to take bad shots and he kind of lets the game come to him. Really, when you look at it, a lot of what he does is off the offensive glass.
“We have to do a better job of getting the ball to him. At the same time, I don’t want him to force things. I think he kind of did that beginning of last year, you know, tried to be somebody that he’s not. I think he’s done a great job of playing within himself this year.”
Jones isn’t sure what to make of the late-game problems.
“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 something instead of making their own plays.”
The winner of the WVU-Gonzaga game faces the winner of the Ohio State-Loyola (Md.) game on Saturday.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.