SAN JOSE, Calif. - Bob Huggins said his friendship with Gonzaga coach Mark Few goes back many years when the two used to work clinics together and meet up at the coaches’ convention during Final Four weekend.
This year, Huggins and Few probably have teams good enough to reach the Final Four in Phoenix, but the problem is just one of them is getting out of the San Jose’s Shark Tank alive on Thursday night.
Huggins has been to two - one at Cincinnati and one at West Virginia - while Few, one of college basketball’s winningest coaches over the last decade, is still seeking his first trip. His top-seeded and 34-1 Bulldogs might finally have the firepower to get him there.
That is, of course, if his guys can avoid getting bitten by West Virginia’s full-court pressure defense.
West Virginia turned over normally sure-handed Notre Dame 14 times during last Saturday’s 83-71 Mountaineer victory in Buffalo two days after forcing Bucknell into committing into 15 miscues.
These were two 26-win basketball teams, not two squads full of butter-fingered players.
West Virginia (28-8) has led the country all year in turnovers forced (20.1) and turnover margin (7.8), requiring Few to get some extra usage out of his “Red” squad during practice this week preparing his starters for “Press Virginia.”
“God bless them, I’ve got a great red squad made up of some of our scholarship guys and some of our walk-ons, but it’s impossible to simulate the intensity, the physicality and just the relentlessness West Virginia brings,” Few said. “That being said, our red squad probably did as good a job this week as they have all year with just literally fouling us multiple times on every possession … it was just a physical week of practice.
“You want to prepare your guys, but you also don’t want to get anybody hurt.”
Few said his starters got through the week unscathed and will be ready to face whatever West Virginia throws at them.
Gonzaga, too, poses problems for West Virginia with its great size up front and its talented and experienced backcourt.
The Bulldogs play two 7-footers - 7-foot-1-inch, 300-pound senior Przemek Karnowski and 7-foot, 230-pound freshman Zach Collins. Few actually has a third 7-footer in the program, junior Ryan Edwards, but he has only appeared in two games this season.
The two redwoods Few is putting on the floor Thursday night are big enough to block out the sun, and in the case of Karnowski, big enough to block out the entire solar system.
“They’re really big,” Huggins admitted earlier this week.
But as big as the ‘Zags are, what makes them so difficult to slow down is the across-the-board production they get from all of their players.
Six-three junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss leads the team in scoring by averaging 16.7 points per game, yet if the Mountaineers focus solely on him Gonzaga has plenty of other players that can hurt them.
There’s Karnowski, averaging 12.4 points per game, or Collins coming off the bench to average 10.3 points per contest. Six-four senior guard Jordan Mathews averages 10.7 points per game and then there is 6-foot-9-inch, 228-pound junior forward Johnathan Williams and his 10 points-per-game average.
Starting sophomore guard Josh Perkins (8.3 ppg.) and junior sub guard Silas Melson (7.4 ppg.) have the ability to score as well.
As Few reminded a reporter who implied during today’s news conference that Gonzaga is not accustomed to being sped up, his team is quite comfortable playing in fourth gear. His team’s 83.9 points per game average this year is on pace to break a school record.
West Virginia players share a laugh during Wednesday's shoot-around at the Sap Center in San Jose, California. The Mountaineers will take on top-seeded Gonzaga Thursday night in the first of two semifinal games in the NCAA West regional. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
“We’ve averaged over 80 points a game this year so we consistently always play as fast as anybody, but it comes down to taking care of the basketball, and that’s been a big step for us all year because we’ve been so efficient on the offensive end,” Few said.
Therefore, the better question might be: how does West Virginia slow them down?
Only one team this year has been able to do it so far - BYU, last month in Spokane.
That night the Cougars made nine 3s, held their own on the glass against the ‘Zags and forced Gonzaga to miss 13 of the 16 triples it attempted. Gonzaga was unable to make a field goal over the remaining 3:41 of that game.
Other than that, the sheet is a clean one for Few, who last Saturday became the third-fastest coach in NCAA history to reach 500 victories behind just Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian.
“He may end up being the winningest coach of all time if he keeps going the way he’s going,” noted Huggins.
Before blowing through the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga’s non-conference slate this year included victories over Florida (77-72), Iowa State (73-71), Arizona (69-62), Washington (98-71) and Tennessee (86-76).
Against Iowa State last November, Gonzaga jumped out to a 49-34 halftime lead by shooting well from 3. Gonzaga finished the game hitting 12 of 25 from behind the arc while shooting 49.1 percent from the field for the game.
The smallish Cyclones did manage to play even with the ‘Zags on the glass, however.
The only other common opponent was Mississippi Valley State, which West Virginia routed 107-66 in Morgantown and Gonzaga blew out 97-63 in Spokane, so there are no clues there.
“They do a terrific job,” Huggins said. “One, they do a great job of scouting so they know what you’re going to do. And, in our game to be successful it’s about taking things away from people and they do a terrific job of taking things away.”
For Huggins, it simply comes down to which team is able to impose its will on the other.
Will his Mountaineers be able to take away some of the things Gonzaga wants to do and get it out of its comfort zone, or, will Few’s Bulldogs take West Virginia away some of the things it wants to do and get it out of its comfort zone?
The one that does will move one step closer to reaching the Final Four, while the other will be there next week watching from the stands.
Tipoff is slated for 7:39 p.m. EDT. The game will be televised nationally on TBS.