NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga enduring growing pains, too
PITTSBURGH - If there is an overriding theme - as well as a little-noticed undercurrent - to West Virginia's opener in its 25th NCAA Tournament appearance, it may be a surprising one.
It's freshman orientation.
All season, WVU Coach Bob Huggins has bemoaned the fact that his Mountaineers - now down to eight grant-in-aid players, five of whom never have played in March Madness - need their freshmen to grow up faster than they have.
Gonzaga Coach Mark Few knows that feeling of dealing with youth, too.
When the No. 7 seeded Zags (25-6) and Mountaineers (19-13) tip off tonight at 7:20 (TNT telecast), the team that gets more proficiency and production from its freshmen may be the one advancing to third-round play Saturday.
"We have a bunch of young guys who are new to college basketball," Few said. "They're excited for everything. Excited our name popped up there again (on the bracket); excited about the matchup.
"We knew we were going to play somebody good and lo and behold, we are playing somebody good."
The first NCAA Tournament game in the short history of the 19,100-seat Consol Energy Center is the 8-9 seed game at 12:40 p.m. today between Kansas State (21-10) and Southern Mississippi (25-8). Top East Region seed Syracuse (31-2) - minus suspended center Fab Melo - and UNC Asheville (24-9) follow at approximately 3:10.
After WVU-Gonzaga open the night session, second seed Ohio State (27-7) faces Loyola of Maryland (24-8) in a 9:50 nightcap.
While this is the 14th straight March that Gonzaga has played in the big bracket, Few said this is a different Bulldogs team.
"This is easily the youngest team I've ever brought into a tournament," Few said. "But, you know, this team shoots the ball or can shoot the ball extremely well. It's probably one of the more balanced teams we've had. We can score, double-figure score, at a variety of positions.
"I mean, we seem to be able to play ... we can grind it hopefully if we have to, and we like to play fast, too. It's pretty versatile in that way.
Definitely, the youth is probably the thing we haven't dealt with in a tournament setting like this."
It's no secret that Gonzaga's main defensive focus will be trying to limit WVU senior forward Kevin Jones, who has 21 double-doubles and led the Big East Conference in scoring and rebounding this season.
"He's a great player, and we've got to limit his touches, make sure he gets no easy baskets," said Gonzaga's fifth-year senior, 7-foot center Robert Sacre. "He's a great offensive rebounder; that's where he gets most of his baskets.
"We've got to make sure nothing comes easy for him and when it comes to simple plays, we've got to make sure he doesn't catch the ball down in close ... You have to box him out, make sure you keep a body on him, be physical."
While the Zags start a pair of freshman guards in a versatile attack led by their top scorer, Canadian Kevin Pangos (13.5 ppg), he admits that the rookies in the game - freshman and junior college players - have to grasp the elements.
"We're just going to treat it as an away game; we're not sure what to expect," Pangos said of the game's close proximity to WVU and its fan base. "That's not what our concern is. We're more worried about our approach to the game, how we handle the other team and our own strategy."
The 6-1 Pangos was asked whether ignorance is a plus in a first NCAA Tournament.
"Yeah, sometimes," said Pangos, who is shooting 41 percent on 3-point attempts and has three 30-point games this season. "Obviously I've grown up watching March Madness. I always dreamed of playing at this level, so it's obviously really exciting.
"But at the same time I'm just going to treat it as any other game, play as hard as I can, not really look at any of the March Madness or blow it up too much. I'm just really excited and looking forward to the game (tonight)."
Few, whose teams played two Huggins-coached Cincinnati clubs, including a 2003 NCAA game won by the Zags (in which Huggins was ejected) said he knows what to expect from the Mountaineers.
"Well, they all kind of share the same Huggs' qualities," Few said when asked for a comparison from then to now. "They're tough. First, the thing that comes to your mind is just how tough they are and how physical they are, I mean, unbelievably physical.
"And they all rebound the ball well. This team rebounds the ball unbelievably well, especially the offensive end. I think they share those kind of same qualities, kind of year-in and year-out."
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ONE OF THE most-discussed matters surrounding the West Virginia-Gonzaga game has been the shipping of the 'Zags 2,231 miles to Pittsburgh for an East Region opener against WVU, which bused 75 miles to the Steel City.
In 2008, Gonzaga was a 7 and was sent to Raleigh, N.C., to face another 10 seed in Davidson. The Southern Conference team pulled the upset.
However, way more often than not in its current run of 14 straight NCAA bids, the Zags have been much closer to home.
Besides the trip to Raleigh and the one here, Gonzaga went way east from Spokane, Wash., only once, in 2010 to Buffalo, N.Y. In 2001, the Bulldogs were a 12 seed in Memphis, Tenn.
Otherwise, Gonzaga has begun its NCAA play in Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., and Salt Lake City (twice each), Portland, Ore., Sacramento, Calif., Denver and Albuquerque, N.M.
Few dismissed a lot of the hubbub about the cross-country travel to face a foe in its backyard.
"One thing we try to impart to our guys is to control what we can control and we don't have any control over when and where," the Gonzaga coach said. "We need to just take advantage of the fact we're in the tournament, play our best basketball on Thursday, that's what we're trying to focus on, and see if we can advance."
Contact Sports Editor JackBogaczyk at email@example.com or 304-348-7949.