WVU's Deniz Kilicli is used to physical battles.
PITTSBURGH - If West Virginia's opening game in the NCAA tournament tonight is anything but a rough, physical, no-blood-no-foul kind of event, the Mountaineers are going to be very disappointed.
But so, too, will Gonzaga.
In fact, that was pretty much all either side seemed thrilled to talk about on the eve of the game.
The travel difference of WVU playing 75 miles from home and higher-seeded Gonzaga 2,200 miles? The Zags are used to it.
The relationship between old friends Bob Huggins and Mark Few? After 30 years, Huggins can't go anywhere without running into old coaching buddies.
Two teams with heavy doses of freshman contributors? Hey, doesn't it balance out?
But ask about physical play and the floodgates open.
"Yeah, we see the Mountaineers play. They're on ESPN quite a bit,'' Gonzaga's 7-foot, 260-pound senior center Robert Sacre said. "We know Huggins' style of play. We're all prepared for that.''
As will be West Virginia when the No. 10 seeded Mountaineers (19-13) face seventh-seeded Gonzaga (25-6) tonight at Consol Energy Center. The 7:20 p.m. game will be televised by TNT, with the winner advancing to play Saturday against the winner of tonight's second game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 15 Loyola (Md.).
In fact, to a degree, at least one Mountaineer seems amused at the notion that Gonzaga feels it is just as physical as WVU.
"I think they're very physical in their conference. But we play Big East,'' said the most physical Mountaineer, 6-foot-9, 260-pound Deniz Kilicli. "I play guys like Sacre and [6-7, 240-pound junior Elias] Harris 16 times, 17 times, you know?
"So I think they're not going to be as prepared as we are. They're definitely physical and they want to play physical. So we'll see what's going to happen. But I think we're going to beat them on the physical end.''
The team that does win that phase of the game will likely have the edge overall. Both have rather streaky outside shooters. West Virginia's Truck Bryant averages 17.2 points and made only 30.8 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but also had eight games of 24 points or more and twice went over 30. Gonzaga freshman Kevin Pangos averaged a team-best 13.8 points and shot 40.5 percent on his 3s, but in his last game - a loss to Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference tournament - missed nine of 10 from that range.
West Virginia has by far the most heralded individual in the game in senior forward Kevin Jones, who has made multiple All-America lists and averaged 20.1 points and 11.1 rebounds. But Gonzaga has far better balance with four double-figure scorers and a deeper bench.
And both rely on freshmen who have never been near the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga's primary ball-handlers are freshmen Pangos and Gary Bell. WVU starts Jabarie Hinds and Keaton Miles and relies heavily upon Gary Browne and sometimes Aaron Brown.
If all of those factors cancel out each other, it could very well come down to who is more physical and how the game is called.
Not that it will be a conscious effort, though, at least on the part of the Mountaineers.
"Everybody thinks we're the most physical team. I guess that's just how hard we play,'' said the 6-2, 195-pound Bryant, who is likely to be defended by a player roughly his own size and bulk in the 6-1, 205-pound Bell. "We don't even know we're physical. We just play hard for 40 minutes. That's just something we want to do and keep going.''
One thing is fairly certain. The Zags won't be surprised if the game gets rough and tumble. They fully expect that and actually seem to relish it.
"It's a different style on the West Coast. But I think when you go against West Virginia, it's more physical,'' said Sacre, one of two Canadians (Pangos is the other) and four foreign-born players in Gonzaga's starting five. "I think just in the Big East, you look at the Big East teams they're very physical, very strong inside. It's much of a power game. So I think we're very excited to see that. We haven't seen that in a while. Nothing against the WCC, but it's a different style. I think we're just really excited to see a physical team like West Virginia.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.