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WVU Had Gonzaga Right Where They Wanted ’Em — And The Zags Won Anyway

The way Thursday night’s Sweet 16 contest between West region No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 4 West Virginia played out, it’s no wonder the Mountaineers were in it to the end. It was the type of game whose box score suggested West Virginia should have won. Bob Huggins’ team imposed its own style of game on the mighty Zags, yet the Bulldogs still survived, passing their first real test of the NCAA tournament with a display of grit (if not flying colors).

The Mountaineers relied all season on a full-court-press defense designed to create and feed off of havoc, and they left some interesting statistics in their wake. They forced more turnovers per possession than any other D-I team, and they gave opposing offenses fewer seconds to work with than any other team, yet they didn’t really push the pace in transition very often.1 (Those metrics, as well as many other numbers in this piece, come from Ken Pomeroy’s invaluable — but paywalled — college basketball statistics site.) They also had one of college basketball’s best defenses, despite fouling a ton and actively ignoring opponents on the offensive glass.

In other words, a chaotic, defensive-minded, grind-it-out foul-fest would seem to favor West Virginia — and that’s exactly the kind of game they forced Gonzaga to play on Thursday. The two teams combined for 51 fouls and more turnovers (29) than transition plays (25), and together they shot 33 percent from the field and scored only 119 points in 134 total possessions.

That’s most decidedly not the type of game where Gonzaga thrives. It’s a great offensive team that likes to push the ball2 and strike quickly, and it’s usually quite good at avoiding turnovers. But against the Mountaineers, Gonzaga had to adapt and find a way to survive the toughest opponent they’d faced since beating Florida in late November.

Specifically, the Bulldogs did it with defense — reinforcing the bona fides of a team that ranks first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Pomeroy. In Thursday’s game, they held West Virginia to a ridiculously low 31 percent effective field goal percentage, the Mountaineers’ least-efficient shooting night of the entire season, and yielded just 86 points per 100 possessions to a team that usually averages 112.

Down the stretch, even as it looked like Gonzaga’s ballhandlers were about to collapse in the face of WVU’s press, the Zags’ D clamped down and held the Mountaineers to just 6 points in the game’s final 5 minutes and 56 seconds. It all culminated with an ugly final West Virginia possession in which Gonzaga stifled Jevon Carter’s attempts to get free using screens and ultimately prevented the Mountaineers from even attempting a game-tying shot before time expired.

We should be careful not to read too much into a win like this, which is likely to be taken as a “statement” about Gonzaga’s oftquestioned tournament credentials. The Bulldogs didn’t need the validation: They’re the best team remaining in the field according to all sorts of power ratings, and our model gives them a whopping 78 percent chance of making their first-ever Final Four appearance. (Xavier’s upset of Arizona in the other half of the West bracket also helped improve the Bulldogs’ chances.) But for a Zags squad that faced a weak schedule all season long and was never seriously threatened in either of its first two tournament games, Thursday’s win was still a sign that this might finally be the year Gonzaga gets over the NCAA tourney hump.

Check out our March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. This season, they ranked 188th out of 351 D-I teams in the percentage of their plays that Synergy Sports Technology classified as “transition.”

  2. The Bulldogs ranked 98th in the percentage of plays in transition, according to Synergy.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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