Zach Bell is the site manager over at The Slipper Still Fits, the SB Nation Gonzaga blog. He was kind enough to answer some questions to help us preview tonight's game against the Zags. Let's get to it...
WVUIE97: Has Gonzaga made a lot of trips this far east? How have they performed traditionally?
Zach: I don't really expect distance traveled to be a big issue in this matchup. Gonzaga historically hasn't gone this far East routinely but some of the recent trips have been good. A year ago, the Zags went out to Florida and won the Old Spice Classic and the year before that, they were placed in Pittsburgh for the NCAA Tournament and defeated WVU (sorry) and played very well against Ohio State. With this year being a bit of an outlier, Mark Few usually takes on a very difficult non-conference schedule with plenty of travel so he knows how to prepare a team for regular season away games.
WVUIE97: Are Bulldog fans still happy with Few and with where things are? Are they restless for a Final Four?
Zach: This is a great question and I can ramble for hours on this. My attitude is that this is a VERY divided fanbase in terms of how they feel about the current position of the program. I often refer to Gonzaga as a bit of a 'microwave' program in that the journey from being really bad at basketball to being really good was a very quick one. Gonzaga burst on the scene in 1999 so while many consider them a 'power' now, they are still relatively new to this whole winning thing when you compare them to some of the blue bloods. Because of this quick ascension, you have two types of fans of the program.
The first group is the older fans that can remember when students wouldn't go to games and they played in front of a 1,000 people in a high school-sized gym. The second group are the people like me who discovered Gonzaga University because of the basketball program and only really remember this program as being dominant. The first group is obviously still pretty pumped by how good the program is while the second group is growing restless. The thing that pushed most of the second group over the edge was the recent Butler Final 4's and then the early exit last year following a dream season. I'm sure there are folks in the first group that are getting restless and, conversely, people in the second group that are still pretty happy but that is my best attempt to describe the fans.
WVUIE97: Are you tired of kicking our asses yet? Seriously, you guys have had our number the last few years. Can you give us any reasons for hope Tuesday?
Zach: We'll take any chance we can get to pump our chests out over a BCS program so, no, I don't think the Zags are tired of it yet. That said, this is a much different team than what Huggins has seen the past few years. For that reason, there is plenty of hope for WVU. I can think of a few quick reasons why (from a Gonzaga perspective) this will be a good game. First of all, Gonzaga's starting back-court is quite banged up. Kevin Pangos is battling a toe injury which nearly sidelined him for Saturday's game against New Mexico State and Gary Bell injured his hip in that game and did not return. He has said he will be good to go on Tuesday but I don't expect him to be at 100%.
Secondly, this is Gonzaga's first true road game. They played in Maui but, other than that, have not been away from Spokane. For a team that is still trying to figure out their identity, this will be a tough task. Lastly, I imagine West Virginia has to be really pissed about the past couple years against Gonzaga and they don't want a third loss in three years to come in their building.
WVUIE97: The only blemish on the Zags' record so far is a 5 point loss to Dayton. What do you feel was Gonzaga's downfall that game?
Zach: It was simply just a massive choke job. Gonzaga held a 16-point lead at halftime against a Dayton team that played one of the worst halves of basketball I have seen. In the second half, they came out gunning and the Zags simply didn't know how to punch back. Two things, in particular, really crushed them in that second half. First of all, they allowed way too many second chances. Dayton got 18 offensive boards vs. 6 for Gonzaga in the contest. They capitalized on a lot of those second chances and that gave them confident to pull off the upset.
The second thing is that Gonzaga has a really hard time defending big guards who can hit from outside and, of course, Dayton's Jordan Sibert stands at 6'4'' and got extremely hot down the stretch. He wound up draining 5 three point shots and seemed to squash any Gonzaga comeback in the second half with a big shot of his own.
WVUIE97: How do see the game playing out?
Zach: I really do think this is going to be a slugfest. Both teams could use a huge benefit from getting a win on Tuesday. For WVU, they have played a couple close games against solid teams but haven't been able to pull out a win and this would be a win to cling to. For Gonzaga, the non-conference slate is very weak so getting a win over any BCS team would be huge.
I can see both teams coming out and shooting very well but I think it will be decided by the few points I made above: does Gonzaga slip into the bad habits of allowing second chances and will they let the home Mountaineers get hot from deep. What would decimate the Zags is if either Sam Dower or Przemek Karnowski gets in foul trouble early. They simply can't afford to lose either big man. In the end, I do think Gonzaga gets the win but it will be back and forth up to the final minutes.
Thanks to Zach for helping us preview tonight's game. Be sure to head over to The Slipper Still Fits for more great Gonzaga coverage.