Gonzaga faces red-hot Xavier with Final Four spot on the line

SAN JOSE, Calif. – In coach Mark Few’s mind, Gonzaga has gone from facing one of the most unique styles in college basketball to one of hottest teams left in the NCAA tournament.

West Virginia was all about pressure defense. Gonzaga solved it well enough to pull out a 61-58 victory Thursday.

Xavier is all about offensive versatility and changing defenses. And proving doubters wrong.

“Xavier has our full attention,” said Few, one victory away from guiding the second-ranked Zags (35-1) to the first Final Four in program history. “I mean they are on an absolute roll, shooting the ball probably as good as anybody in the tournament right now.”

The 11th-seeded Musketeers (24-13) have embarked on a magical March after a six-game losing streak late in the regular-season threatened to derail their tournament hopes. A Big East tournament win over Butler probably clinched Xavier’s at-large bid.

Still, not much was expected from Xavier entering the tournament. The Musketeers lost starting point guard Edmond Sumner (15 points per game, 5 assists) to a season-ending knee injury in late January and standout wing Trevon Bluiett was battling an ankle injury that he says still hasn’t quite fully healed.

“We came closer,” said freshman Quentin Goodin, who stepped in for Sumner at point guard. “Malcolm (Bernard) called a team meeting after Senior Night and said we have to quit this losing stuff or we’re not going to make the tourney. We wanted to show everybody we’re not done.”

Far from it. Xavier has tourney wins over No. 6 Maryland, No. 3 Florida State and No. 2 Arizona. The Musketeers thumped Florida State by 25. They beat Arizona with a 9-0 closing kick in a 73-71 victory Thursday.

They join LSU (1987) as the only squads in tournament history to beat three top six seeds in their first three games.

Bluiett, a 6-foot-6 junior wing who originally committed to UCLA, is averaging 25 points in the tournament. He dropped 40 points on Cincinnati in late January.

“I would say I’m more of a ‘3’, a ‘2’, a ‘4’,” said Bluiett, when asked about his position. “Whatever position needs to be done. I’m physically strong enough to compete with some of the bigs. As far as IQ, shooting and ball-handling I feel like I can be with the guards.”

Bluiett is one of several Musketeers in the 6-4 to 6-6 range that can score from beyond the 3-point arc or off the dribble. Bluiett is shooting nearly 48 percent on 3s and the team checks in at 46.4.

“He’s a nice-sized wing capable of making 3s, a little bounce to his game and he has a ton of freedom,” said Zags assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who joined Donny Daniels in compiling the scouting report. “Just a guy we’re going to dedicate a lot of attention to and try not to give him much space.”

Lloyd said Xavier players have freedom to create but the team also runs a high number of set plays.

Xavier, despite only one starter taller than 6-6, outscored Arizona’s sizable frontcourt 38-32 in the paint.

“They probably get tired of hearing me say this, that you have to get the ball into what we call the box, the lane, through a few ways,” coach Chris Mack said. “And that’s through post-ups, drives, offensive rebounds and set plays.”

Gonzaga can expect to see quite a bit of zone defense, which could put pressure on the guards to deliver from the perimeter. Arizona was just 7 of 27 from distance.

“A zone leaves a lot of 3s available,” Gonzaga guard Silas Melson said. “But our main attack is being ourselves and still trying to get it in to our big guys down low because they’re so efficient.”

The Musketeers use a 1-1-3, 2-3 and 1-3-1. They relied on a seven-man rotation against Arizona and the zone helps keeps players fresher.

“Quite honestly, we weren’t very good at man,” Mack said, “and I’m not going to keep doing something if it’s not effective.”

Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews (right) and teammates answer media questions Friday. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga makes everyone a believer in Sweet 16 win

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Przemek Karnowski might as well have been on an island.

With a little less than five minutes left in the first half of Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup against West Virginia, the Gonzaga big man hauled in a rebound on his own end and duly initiated the protocol of the outlet pass. Few things on a basketball court are this mundane. Karnowski, a senior center, has literally thousands of outlets under his belt; it might be the easiest, least stressful part of his job.

On this outlet pass, though, Karnowski didn't find a guard helpfully ready to move up the floor. Instead, he found a gaping chasm carved out by West Virginia's relentless ball denial, one that had stranded him with little more than a beard and a ball.

The castaway of San Jose dribbled a few steps, picked up his dribble, freaked out, and called timeout.

"We don't have him bring the ball up the floor much," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

Gonzaga fans, furious about a non-call on guard Nigel Williams-Goss in the open floor a possession earlier, wailed in agony. West Virginia fans roared.

It wasn't a pivotal moment in the game. It wasn't even a turnover. But it felt like a sign of some kind: This was West Virginia's game.

Turns out, it was Gonzaga's too.

"That was just an absolute war," Few said. "Rock fight. However you want to describe it."

If you still needed reasons to believe in Gonzaga -- if the 34-1 record and the All-American performers and NBA prospects and deep rotation and every advanced metric hadn't convinced you -- perhaps Thursday's 61-58 win can push you over the edge. Because the Bulldogs' ability to win that kind of game in the manner they did so should, at the very least, serve as the latest reason to believe: Yes, Gonzaga can get to the Final Four. Yes, Gonzaga can win it all. Yes, Gonzaga can take a punch. Yes, Gonzaga punches back.

Few teams hit harder than West Virginia. The Mountaineers are renowed for their press -- even their shooting shirts say "Press Virginia" down the left sleeve -- but they're just as tough in the half court, even after the considerable effort made to advance the ball into semi-reasonable scoring position. They're just as tough on the offensive glass, where Bob Huggins' group rebounded nearly 38 percent of its misses on the season.

This blend was as potent as ever Thursday night, hurrying and harassing Few's team, which had planned to attack the pressure but had more than a few moments when it looked as if it might crack under the same. What began as a relatively tidy performance devolved midway through the second half, when the turnovers began to pile up, and Goss, the star guard who had zero fouls at halftime, was called for his second push-off and fourth foul with eight minutes still to play.

By then, the minimal separation Jordan Mathews had created with two huge 3-pointers had evaporated. West Virginia predictably refused to fade away.

"I was very, very concerned, especially in the first half, as we were shuffling through some lineups that, quite frankly, we haven't played all year," Few said. "And then [I was] mildly concerned as it got deeper."

"It's not something you come across," Mathews said. "We had never come across that throughout the season. It wasn't frustration. It was more like, I don't know, confusion, trying to figure it out."

As confusing as things got on the offensive end, though, Gonzaga was always able to fall back on its defense. This is not new. The Bulldogs rank first in adjusted defensive efficiency this season; no team in the country has allowed fewer points per possession, adjusted for its competition. No Gonzaga team, from the one that starred player of the year Adam Morrison to the one that earned the program its first No. 1 seed in 2013, has ever guarded like this.

Which is why West Virginia, even as it scrambled to earn extra opportunities to tie the score in the closing seconds, couldn't find a single makeable one -- and were left helpless without an attempt as the final buzzer sounded.

Few said it was disappointing not to "dig out" any of those rebounds, but in the end Gonzaga didn't need to. It could do what it had done all season along, one more time.

"The Mountaineers, man," Few said later, sighing in relief. "They do not make it easy."

Then again, neither does Gonzaga.

WVU Had Gonzaga Right Where They Wanted ’Em — And The Zags Won Anyway

The way Thursday night’s Sweet 16 contest between West region No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 4 West Virginia played out, it’s no wonder the Mountaineers were in it to the end. It was the type of game whose box score suggested West Virginia should have won. Bob Huggins’ team imposed its own style of game on the mighty Zags, yet the Bulldogs still survived, passing their first real test of the NCAA tournament with a display of grit (if not flying colors).

The Mountaineers relied all season on a full-court-press defense designed to create and feed off of havoc, and they left some interesting statistics in their wake. They forced more turnovers per possession than any other D-I team, and they gave opposing offenses fewer seconds to work with than any other team, yet they didn’t really push the pace in transition very often.1 (Those metrics, as well as many other numbers in this piece, come from Ken Pomeroy’s invaluable — but paywalled — college basketball statistics site.) They also had one of college basketball’s best defenses, despite fouling a ton and actively ignoring opponents on the offensive glass.

In other words, a chaotic, defensive-minded, grind-it-out foul-fest would seem to favor West Virginia — and that’s exactly the kind of game they forced Gonzaga to play on Thursday. The two teams combined for 51 fouls and more turnovers (29) than transition plays (25), and together they shot 33 percent from the field and scored only 119 points in 134 total possessions.

That’s most decidedly not the type of game where Gonzaga thrives. It’s a great offensive team that likes to push the ball2 and strike quickly, and it’s usually quite good at avoiding turnovers. But against the Mountaineers, Gonzaga had to adapt and find a way to survive the toughest opponent they’d faced since beating Florida in late November.

Specifically, the Bulldogs did it with defense — reinforcing the bona fides of a team that ranks first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Pomeroy. In Thursday’s game, they held West Virginia to a ridiculously low 31 percent effective field goal percentage, the Mountaineers’ least-efficient shooting night of the entire season, and yielded just 86 points per 100 possessions to a team that usually averages 112.

Down the stretch, even as it looked like Gonzaga’s ballhandlers were about to collapse in the face of WVU’s press, the Zags’ D clamped down and held the Mountaineers to just 6 points in the game’s final 5 minutes and 56 seconds. It all culminated with an ugly final West Virginia possession in which Gonzaga stifled Jevon Carter’s attempts to get free using screens and ultimately prevented the Mountaineers from even attempting a game-tying shot before time expired.

We should be careful not to read too much into a win like this, which is likely to be taken as a “statement” about Gonzaga’s oft–questioned tournament credentials. The Bulldogs didn’t need the validation: They’re the best team remaining in the field according to all sorts of power ratings, and our model gives them a whopping 78 percent chance of making their first-ever Final Four appearance. (Xavier’s upset of Arizona in the other half of the West bracket also helped improve the Bulldogs’ chances.) But for a Zags squad that faced a weak schedule all season long and was never seriously threatened in either of its first two tournament games, Thursday’s win was still a sign that this might finally be the year Gonzaga gets over the NCAA tourney hump.

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