PITTSBURGH – In a city that regards itself as a barometer for toughness, a remarkable clinical trial unfolded here Thursday evening.
The result couldn’t have been more astonishing – or affirming.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs, so often dismissed in the national discussion as the fun but finesse darlings of the soft side of the college basketball world, took on the Big Tough Conference’s toughest tough guy and, well, turned his team into tapioca.
Not that you have to take our word for it.
“It’s never happened to us before,” West Virginia’s Darryl Bryant said, “but we just got out-toughed tonight. That’s how it really was.”
And as the Bulldogs laid a 77-54 drubbing on his team in the second round of the NCAA tournament, WVU coach Bob Huggins was thoroughly helpless to affect it. At one point in the second half when the action moved to his end of the floor, Huggins crouched in front of his chair and gazed down the sideline at his friend Mark Few as if to ask, “Really?”
Now, of course, the Zags must prove it all over again under even more onerous circumstances – facing a far more talented and arguably just as rugged opponent in No. 2 seed Ohio State on Saturday for the opportunity to go to a sixth Sweet 16. These sorts of back-to-back tests of will have not always treated the Bulldogs well this season.
“One game does not establish toughness,” forward Mike Hart cautioned. “It has to be a process. You’ve got to see it game to game.”
But the front end couldn’t have been more impressive.
Offense? The Zags ran their stuff splendidly inside and out, briskly when necessary, patiently after they’d surged to the huge lead, shooting with confidence – making 56 percent – and not letting off the pedal but not overanxious to make their statement.
Defense? Well, this was truly special.
The Mountaineers are marginal shooters anyway, but made just 33 percent this night. Wooden Award finalist Kevin Jones had to earn every touch; Bryant was rendered irrelevant.
“Never gotten beat like that,” Huggins said. “We just were never in the game.”
The game was, for all purposes, over when this happened, but it’s as telling as anything that transpired over 40 minutes: The Zags had built their led to 52-29 with 15 minutes left, and WVU’s last hope of getting back in contact was to get Jones untracked. He’d been bottled up mostly by 7-foot Robert Sacre, but Huggins had squeezed a few buckets out of massive Deniz Kilicli going against Elias Harris, so the Zags switched it up.
And the next three times the Mountaineers worked it to Jones deep in the post, Harris jumped in front for steals. That they didn’t turn into field goals at the other end wasn’t nearly as important as the defeating pall they cast.
“We wanted to shrink his operating area,” GU assistant Tommy Lloyd said, “before he even got the ball.”
Now then, a question:
Do the Mountaineers realize they’re leaving the Big East next year for the Big 12 and not the Pac-12?
For all the gnashing of teeth over the Pac’s terrible contributions to the culture of basketball this year, the Big East’s No. 8 team lost eight of its last 12 before even getting a pass here. Someone might want to remind them they won’t be getting in as the Big 12’s eighth best.
“Worst defensive team I’ve ever had,” Huggins growled, and then later: “We haven’t made shots for a month.”
Still, they had bravado. On Wednesday, Kilicli – a combination of Drago from “Rocky” and the Mountaineer mascot – engaged the media and offered: “I think they’re very physical in their conference. But we play Big East.”
Pause to allow the earth to cease shaking.
As it happens, the Zags have beaten six of the last Big East schools they’ve played – top-tier teams in certain years (UConn, Notre Dame, St. John’s) as well those in the middle. What’s more, they’re 8-8 in this tournament against the supposed tough customers of the BCS leagues – excluding, of course, those purported Pac-12 softies.
The whole business is more than slightly overstated, and yet the Big East will never lose its brass-knucks-and- bad-asses rep.
“It’s a media-driven thing,” Lloyd insisted, “and it has a lot more to do – in my opinion – with the difference in officiating between the East Coast and West Coast. In the Big East at the end of the year, they don’t call anything and for some reason their officials take pride in that. And teams play to it. On the West Coast, they actually call fouls.
“But we’re a team that’s built to play that way, and if it’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out deal, we’re fine.”
Fine? On this day, the Zags were downright fierce.