West Virginia’s press is getting all the publicity heading into the Sweet 16 matchup, but the Bulldogs’ underrated defense also is one of the best in the country.
You’ve seen the numbers and heard the hype. West Virginia’s in-your-face, full-court defense – dubbed Press Virginia – is lethal.
The Mountaineers hound the ball relentlessly and aggressively cut off passing lanes looking for any little advantage possible. There’s a reason they lead the nation in turnovers forced per game with 20.1 and four of their last six opponents have shot 40.7 percent or worse.
But there’s a major story line being overlooked as the fourth-seeded Mountaineers face No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Thursday night in San Jose: The Bulldogs’ defense is pretty darn good, too. Maybe even better.
Gonzaga sits atop Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, not West Virginia. The Zags rank second in the nation in opponents’ field goal percentage at 36.8, seventh in foes’ 3-point percentage at 30.0 and has held the opposition to an average of 61.1 points per game – good for fifth in the country.
South Dakota State managed to shoot just 31 percent from the floor in a 66-46 loss to Gonzaga in the opening round, and Northwestern needed a furious second-half rally to shoot 40.9 percent before the Zags pulled out a 79-73 victory.
Throw in Gonzaga’s plus-7.9 average rebound differential per game that ranks eighth nationally, and the Zags’ gritty presence looks comparable – and then some – to West Virginia’s.
“They do a terrific job,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said of the Bulldogs’ defense. “One, they do a great job of scouting, so they know what you’re going to do. To be successful in our game is about taking things away from people, and they do a terrific job of taking things away. Then they’ve got that great size inside – not just size, but they’re good. And they limit you to one shot.”
The Bulldogs enter Thursday’s contest as a four-point favorite, mainly because they have essentially two point guards capable of handling West Virginia’s pressure – Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins. Jordan Matthews is versatile as well.
But 7-foot-1, 300-pound center Przemek Karnowski controls the paint on both ends of the floor, as Huggins eluded to. The Mountaineers are going to have trouble reaching their average of 82.1 points per game if they try to challenge Karnowski and Gonzaga takes away their perimeter play as it has been known to do.
“We play hard defense,” Karnowski said. “I think that’s been a huge difference maker for us this year.”
Zags coach Mark Few has reservations, though – namely offensive rebounding. The Mountaineers rank fifth in the nation averaging 14.3 offensive boards per game despite having just a plus-2.9 total rebound differential per contest.
“I really think our defense has got to show and we’ve got to really buckle down and block them out,” Few said. “One of the sneaky stats is their offensive rebound percentage and just how effective they are there.”
Gonzaga is no offensive slouch either, ranking second in the country with a 51.2 field goal percentage and 14th nationally in scoring at 83.9 points per game. With two offensive juggernauts going at each other, it’ll be defense that decides which team moves onto the Elite Eight.
And the Zags just might have the advantage.