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Gonzaga Basketball

More to Mountaineers than just pressure defense

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins talks to his players during the first half of a first-round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament against Bucknell, Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / Associated Press)

Zag fans might want to start the meter on ‘Press Virginia’ references (that’s one) leading up to Thursday’s Gonzaga-West Virginia Sweet 16 matchup in San Jose, California.

The fourth-seeded Mountaineers (28-8) are known for their pressing, trapping defense, and for good reason. It is their identity. Their relentless style often creates havoc for opposing offenses.

West Virginia leads the country in turnovers forced (20.1 per game).

“They play hard and we’ve probably got better than average foot speed,” said coach Bob Huggins, when asked why WVU has thrived defensively. “We get to balls that maybe some other people can’t get to. And they’ve been very coachable.”

But there’s more to the Mountaineers than their suffocating defense. West Virginia’s resume includes a road win over Virginia, a 32-point blowout over Illinois and a 12-6 mark in the Big 12, which in early January had the top two ranked teams in the country in Baylor and Kansas.

The Mountaineers weren’t far behind at No. 10 in that Jan. 9th poll.

West Virginia is the first team in five seasons to beat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the same season. The Mountaineers thumped No. 1 Baylor by 21. They handled Kansas by 16 and would have swept the season series but they blew a 14-point lead with less than three minutes remaining in Lawrence, Kansas.

The Mountaineers are battled tested in the Big 12. They own an 8-4 mark in their last 12 games versus Top 25 teams, including four top-six victories.

“The league we play in, if you get the yips that’s a bad league for you,” Huggins said.

The Mountaineers edged Bucknell 86-80 in the first round before roughing up Notre Dame 83-71. The Irish, who commit the fewest turnovers in the nation, had 10 in the first half.

“Their style of play is hard to deal with,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “It wore on us at times.”

Brey added that WVU’s physicality was a key factor.

“When we played them back in the Big East and more so (Saturday), they’ve got men,” Brey told “They have old dudes, and staying old is a good thing in college basketball.”

Huggins wasn’t quite buying it. “I don’t know where the physicality part comes from,” he said. “Our foot speed is pretty good. We have some guys that are pretty good on-ball defenders.”

Bucknell committed 15 turnovers but did convert against the press with 17 fastbreak points. The Bison made 46 percent of their shots but were punished on the boards. WVU turned 17 offensive boards into 20 points.

“Where their size really hurt us was on the glass,” Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said.

West Virginia takes balance to a new level. Gonzaga has one of its most balanced teams, but the Mountaineers put up 82 points per game with just two players averaging in double figures.

Junior guard Jevon Carter averages 13.3. Sophomore forward Esa Ahmad is next at 11.3. Ten players, all averaging at least 11 minutes per game, contribute at least four points per game.

The Mountaineers share the ball (16.7 assists per game, No. 17 nationally) and take care of the ball (12.3 turnovers per game).

“The biggest thing is they want to win,” Huggins said. “We’ve tried a little more to make sure the ball is in the right guys’ hands.”

While Gonzaga’s primary concern will be West Virginia’s pressure defense, Huggins said Gonzaga’s “great size” has his attention.

“Fewy (coach Mark Few) has done a great job, just an unbelievable job coaching,” Huggins said. “They’ll try to take some things away from us as well as we’ll try to take something away from them.”