It's finally here, the most exciting single day of the sporting year. The brackets are filled out, the bets are placed, and the "real" tournament tips off at noon today. Unlike last year when WVU was in the very first game of the day on Thursday, the nice thing about this year is that WVU fans get to enjoy the excitement of the afternoon games as we build up to the evening session game against the Zags. We had a chance to shoot some questions over to the gents at the Gonzaga blog The Slipper Still Fits, and they were kind enough to answer and to ask a few of their own. Be sure to venture over there to learn more about WVU's first-round opponent and to check out my answers to their questions.
Country Roads: The Zags had yet another impressive season, finishing at 25-6, 14-4 and in second place in a very tough West Coast Conference. However, most of the struggles seemed to take place away from home, with the lone home loss being to Michigan State. Is that a trend that worries you, or is it just the nature of teams naturally playing better in their home gym?
The Slipper Still Fits: I think it is more of the latter, to be honest. Gonzaga has always been an extremely strong home team, one of the best home teams in the country in fact. On the road, I'd only call one of their losses truly suspect and that was to [San Francisco]. Over the past few years, for whatever reason, the Dons have had Gonzaga's number. Mark Few and Co. haven't won there in three years now. Their other losses came to Saint Mary's (twice), BYU, and Illinois. That isn't a horrid group of teams to fall on the road to. What has been a bit disconcerting is that Gonzaga's freshmen guard combo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell have struggled throughout the year away from Spokane. And, in those games, it has been very tough for the Bulldogs to get wins. Against West Virginia, they have to find their stride early or else the pro-Mountaineer crowds in Pittsburgh will simply swallow this team up.CR: Your scoring looks to be extremely balanced, with four starters averaging in double digits. It also looks like your main players are all good shooters, with three guys averaging over 40% from behind the arc. Do you have a go-to player when the game is on the line, or does Mark Few tend to ride the hot hand on any given night?
TSSF: In my mind, Elias Harris is not only Gonzaga's best player, he has been playing some of the best basketball of anyone in the country over the past couple months. Over the past nine games, Harris has had six double doubles and without a doubt has solidified himself as Gonzaga's go-to guy. To be honest, what stops Harris at times is himself. He can tend to fade to the background if he's not featured in the gameplan but lately, this really hasn't been happening. He's been hitting the glass, creating shots for himself, and doing everything he can to get Gonzaga wins. In years past, Elias was a scoring threat only and you kind of had to hide him everywhere else. Now, he's become a force. If this game comes down to the wire, Harris is the likely choice to have the ball in hand.
CR: WVU is known as a tough, physical team that doesn't shoot particularly well, but gets after it on defense and on the glass. How would you describe Gonzaga's style of play and how do you think it will match up with the Mountaineers?
The national media will likely never use the word 'tough' to describe a Gonzaga team. Visions of Adam Morrison, Derek Raivio, and Austin Daye have seemed to solidify this program as one that runs, guns, but doesn't get down and dirty. While I would never compare this teams toughness to that of West Virginia's, this team does bring a bit more swagger than teams in years past. This team is still very much based around getting out in transition and getting quick buckets but with Elias Harris, Rob Sacre, and Sam Dower, this is a team that can score a lot of points in the paint. I have no doubt it is going to be a tough matchup for Gonzaga. So much of the game comes down to which team can dominate the pace. If the pace is up and down and the Bulldogs can get out in transition, I really think Gonzaga can win by a large margin. However, I keep having visions of a slow, grind it out game which terrifies me.
CR: Gonzaga has had some very, very good teams over the years, making several runs to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. How does this team stack up? Have the Bulldogs met or exceeded expectations? Are you happy with the direction or the program, or do you think the program is capable of more?
TSSF: Looking back on the season, I can't be anything but pleased. There were some missed opportunities throughout the season but when you think about the makeup of this team, a 25-6 season is pretty remarkable. Mark Few has started a pair of freshmen in the backcourt and his current starting small forward was suspended for the first eight games of the season. Gonzaga's senior leaders, Rob Sacre and Marquise Carter, have had up and down years to put it mildly. All these factors only led to six losses so, yeah, I'm happy. As for the direction of the program, as I said earlier, Gonzaga has started a freshmen backcourt and they were nothing short of remarkable. Kevin Pangos is a point guard with a deadly outside shot (albeit streaky) and Gary Bell has the makings of a prolific shooter and is already the best defender on the team. The Zags are trending in a very positive direction and the fanbase is very excited for what is next.
CR: I'm not aware of any Vegas lines out at the moment [because I sent these questions Sunday night], so I'll let you make your own. What's the line, what's the over/under, and how do you see the final score shaking out?
TSSF: Well, I can't lie. Part of me is a degenerate gambler so I have seen a line. But, if I was attempting to answer this question without the knowledge I have, I would say that if a team gets out of the 60s and into the 70s, I would be surprised if Gonzaga doesn't win. So, I'm hoping for an over/under of around 140...and I'm pulling for the over. I personally think the favorite is West Virginia due to the committee placing them in a virtual home game. I do believe that Gonzaga is the more talented team and I think the Zags do win this game. I'd say Gonzaga 71 - West Virginia 63.
Thanks again to our friends at The Slipper Still Fits for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to head over there for more information on the Zags as well as some good-natured smack talk.