Mark Few and the top-seeded Bulldogs take on the Mountaineers in San Jose
Gonzaga faces its toughest hurdle yet in a potential Final Four run. When the top-seeded Bulldogs face fourth-seeded West Virginia in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, they will finally draw an opponent who can stand toe-to-toe both on offense and defense.
The Bulldogs rank in the top 15 nationally in scoring offense (83.9 ppg) and in the top five in scoring defense (61.1 ppg). The Mountaineers are in the top 20 in scoring offense (82.1 ppg) and top 50 in scoring defense (66.8 ppg). Both teams rank in the top three nationally in scoring margin.
Gonzaga (34-1) is in the Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season after dispatching No. 16 South Dakota State and No. 8 Northwestern. West Virginia reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons after holding off No. 13 Bucknell and No. 5 Notre Dame.
A win for Gonzaga would put the Bulldogs a step closer to reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history. West Virginia is seeking to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.
West Region: No. 4 West Virginia Mountaineers (28-8) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (34-1)
When: 7:39 pm ET.
Where: SAP Center (San Jose, Calif.)
Line: Gonzaga -3.5
Keys for West Virginia
Hitting outside shots early will be critical. West Virginia does not have enough size in the post to combat Gonzaga's twin towers Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski. The Mountaineers will need to light it up from mid-range and the perimeter to keep Collins and Karnowski from simply choking off driving lanes to the basket.
West Virginia's top two scorers, Jevon Carter and Esa Ahmad, are also two of the better perimeter shooters on the team. Carter leads the Mountaineers with 13.3 points per game while shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range. Ahmad contributes 11.3 points per contest while shooting 39.5 percent from long distance.
The Mountaineers will need to make each shot count because they won't get a ton of second chances. Gonzaga averages 40.6 rebounds per game and collects 7.9 more boards per game than its opponents. The Bulldogs rank in the top 10 nationally in both categories. It's one reason why they limit opponents so much on the offensive end.
Keys for Gonzaga
Taking care of the ball is essential against West Virginia. The Mountaineers are masters of disrupting offenses by forcing bunches of turnovers. West Virginia forces opponents to commit 20.1 turnovers per game, which ranks first among NCAA Division I teams. Opponents turn the ball over on 28 percent of their possessions against the Mountaineers.
Turnovers could be an area of concern for Gonzaga after the Bulldogs coughed up the ball 13 times in the second round against Northwestern. The Wildcats scored 17 points off of turnovers and rallied in the second half before finally falling to the Bulldogs.
One secret weapon for Gonzaga is Nigel Williams-Goss. The junior guard doesn't get frazzled easily under pressure. Williams-Goss averages 4.7 assists per game while turning it over just 2.1 times per contest. The Bulldogs may need to make sure he gets extra touches when West Virginia applies pressure. If Williams-Goss can get it across half court quickly, Collins or Karnowski can easily break a press in the post.
Beating West Virginia will take a complete game from Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have not yet put together two full halves in the NCAA Tournament. They started slow against South Dakota State and sputtered in the second half against Northwestern. Either scenario would prove fatal versus the Mountaineers. Still, West Virginia does not have enough size to match Gonzaga in the post and the Bulldogs are not likely to get as flustered by the press as the Mountaineers’ previous opponents. The odds favor Gonzaga moving one step closer to that elusive Final Four bid.
Prediction: Gonzaga 75, West Virginia 72
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.