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Meet the press: Gonzaga faces West Virginia’s overwhelming defense in NCAA Sweet 16

SAN JOSE, Calif. – There is pressure defense and then there is this:

West Virginia, nicknamed ‘Press Virginia’ because of its relentless defensive style, has been known to slap on the press after missing a free throw. That’s beyond rare.

The Mountaineers contest nearly every pass and dribble. Inbound passes, as fifth-seeded Notre Dame found out last Saturday, are a chore.

West Virginia presses to force turnovers, to speed up the opponent or to make their foe burn up time on the shot clock before initiating offense.

That’s what awaits second-ranked Gonzaga (34-1) in a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 13 West Virginia (28-8) at the SAP Center.

It’s an unusual challenge the Zags don’t seem to mind one bit.

“It’s going to keep you in attack mode for 40 minutes and I feel like that’s when I’m at my best,” GU junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “They play a pretty unique style. I don’t think anyone presses quite like they do.

“We have to stay with the next-play mentality because there’s going to be mistakes and we just have to stick together.”

There is no close comparison on top-seeded Gonzaga’s schedule to fourth-seeded West Virginia’s frenetic style. Florida pressed Gonzaga at times with modest success. According to Synergy, the Gators pressed on 31 possessions and GU scored 31 points. The Zags, who won the November contest 77-72, made 13 of 23 field-goal attempts and committed three turnovers.

On the season, Gonzaga was pressed on 102 possessions and produced 125 points on 56-percent shooting. The Zags had turnovers on 13 percent of those possessions. The 1.22 points per possession is right in line with GU’s goal of 1.20.

The Zags have had several days to prepare but it’s impossible to simulate WVU’s traps in practice. Point guard Josh Perkins joked that “we made the Red squad (scout team) drink a lot of sugar and run all over the court to make it as realistic as possible.”

Opponents turn the ball over against WVU on more than one-quarter of their possessions. The Mountaineers have used a 1-3-1 trap, similar to BYU’s, more of late.

“We’re trying to speed them up, turn them over,” said Mountaineers junior guard Jevon Carter, the Big 12 defensive player of the year. “Just trying to make them uncomfortable.”

“We go almost three hours every day in practice,” said senior forward Nathan Adrian, who joined Carter on the Big 12 All-Defensive team. We’re definitely in better shape than a lot of people. That’s what we try to do, wear on people.”

The Zags counter with twin point guards in Perkins and Williams-Goss and skilled forwards who could be outlets against the defensive heat.

“It’s not just the two points, but having skilled ‘4’ men in J3 (Johnathan Williams) and Killian (Tillie) that can advance the ball and Zach (Collins) is a good ball-handler for a ‘5’,” Williams-Goss said. “That will be a big help.”

Gonzaga, at times, wasn’t able to play as fast as it wanted to in victories over South Dakota State and Northwestern last week in Salt Lake City. Pace shouldn’t be an issue against the Mountaineers.

“You know what, we just need to play,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “I think this is probably one of those areas where we’re going to play instinctually and play off feel. And I don’t think you really need to call sets or things like that.”

The Gonzaga-West Virginia winner advances to face the winner of No. 2 Arizona-No. 11 Xavier on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.

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