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Rebounding could decide Gonzaga-West Virginia game

West Virginia’s formidable Kevin Jones, bottom, and Deniz Kilicli go through drills on Wednesday. (Associated Press)
West Virginia’s formidable Kevin Jones, bottom, and Deniz Kilicli go through drills on Wednesday. (Associated Press)

PITTSBURGH – Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd put together the scouting report for today’s NCAA tournament game against West Virginia, and it’s a safe bet the word “rebounding” appears in it multiple times.

“It starts and ends with rebounding,” Lloyd said of the Mountaineers, who rank a few notches above Gonzaga at No. 14 nationally in rebound margin.

“Whoever wins the rebounding will win this game,” senior center Robert Sacre said flatly.

The players seem to be in agreement.

“Rebounding is key. It kind of slows the game down, makes it more of a slow pace like we want to play,” said West Virginia standout forward Kevin Jones, who averages 11 boards per game. “And it kind of demoralizes the other team if they can’t rebound. It seems like they’re a fast-break team, and it’s hard to do that if you can’t rebound.”

Beyond rebounding and having to play WVU 75 miles from its Morgantown campus, the seventh-seeded Bulldogs (25-6) were asked repeatedly about the 10th-seeded Mountaineers’ physical, Big East-style of play.

“Xavier was really physical. Notre Dame’s bigs were real physical at our place, people probably didn’t see that because we won pretty comfortably,” junior forward Elias Harris said. “Jones is the greatest offensive rebounder we’ve played this year. He positions himself really well, anticipates where the ball is going, and he has a feel for the ball.”

How much of a bruising affair this becomes will depend in large measure on the officials.

“We’ve seen Michigan State, Illinois, even (Saint Mary’s Brad) Waldow was physical,” Sacre said. Asked his preference on a scale of rugged to whistle-fest, Sacre opted for “rugged. Let’s be rugged and get this thing started.”

The versatile Jones can make shots from behind the 3-point arc or by overpowering opponents in the lane.

“He’s the only guy in the country averaging over 20 points and 11 rebounds,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “He’s had a terrific year.”

Sacre and Harris will probably see time defending the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Jones, whose lowest-scoring game this season was 12 points. While Huggins can bank on Jones’ consistency, a more accurate indicator of the Mountaineers’ success or failure is often senior guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant.

A West Virginia columnist in late February tallied Bryant’s stats in wins: Shoots 42 percent from field, 36.7 percent on 3s, averages 19.8 points. In losses, he shoots 25 percent, 21 percent on 3s and averages 11.4 points.

“He’s a volume shooter,” said guard Gary Bell Jr., who will probably guard Bryant. “He’s going to go to the basket, and we can’t bail him out and put him on the line.”

Meanwhile, the Mountaineers plan on challenging Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga’s leading scorer.

“He’s a really smart guy,” junior forward Deniz Kilicli said. “We watched some games where he got pressured, and he didn’t like it. We’re going to do that and make him uncomfortable the whole game and see how he’s going to handle that.”

Lloyd said there are few mysteries with the matchup.

“We know and they know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and it’s a deal where we want to try to make sure their weaknesses stay weaknesses,” he said. “Shooting is probably their biggest weakness, but their best offense is also the second shot. We have to compete there.”

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