Coaches will tell you that factors like luck, coaching experience, depth and momentum all play huge roles in the NCAA Tournament, but most agree that matchups are the No. 1 key to a deep run in “The Big Dance.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the teams West Virginia could face as it looks to get back to the Final Four for the third time in school history with a storybook run like the one Da’Sean Butler’s Mountaineers made back in 2010.
Bucknell – The Patriot League champions got hot at the right time, finishing the season with six straight wins and victories in 14 of their last 16 games to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in school history.
The Bison (26-8) are led by 6-foot-7 junior forward Zach Thomas, who is averaging 16 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Junior Nana Foulland is slightly undersized for a center (6-foot-9), but he’s done plenty of damage in the paint with 14.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Kimbal McKenzie is a three-point specialist, who leads the team with 59 long balls and averages 11.5 points per game, and junior point guard Stephen Brown averages 10.9 points and 4.8 assists per contest.
Bucknell is known as a giant killer, having taken out Kansas in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and then doing the same to Arkansas a year later.
That hasn’t necessarily been the case under second-year head coach Nathan Davis this season, though. The Bison finished 15-3 in Patriot League play, but they’ve lost to most of the big names on their schedule, including Wake Forest (94-74) and Butler (86-60). Their biggest win came at Vanderbilt (75-72) as part of the Las Vegas Classic.
WVU and Bucknell have met on the hardwood on eight previous occasions, with the Mountaineers winning all of them. The most recent came in 1977, when WVU claimed a 112-71 victory and got 14 points from a scrappy guard named Bob Huggins.
Notre Dame – If the Mountaineers can get past the Bison, the most likely opponent in the Round of 32 will be former Big East foe Notre Dame. The fifthseeded Irish finished the season 25-9, falling short against Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Ranked No. 21 in last week’s AP poll, head coach Mike Brey’s club went 12-6 in ACC play but was playing its best basketball at the end of the regular season, having won eight of its last 10 games. The only losses for the Irish during that stretch came against No. 8 Louisville and No. 14 Duke, and they knocked off No. 16 Florida state and No. 21 Virginia on the way to the ACC Tournament championship game.
A string of five losses in six games from mid-January to early February kept Notre Dame from being seeded even higher, but ND presents plenty of problems for any opponent. Four double-figure scorers on the Irish roster are paced by junior forward Bonzie Colson, who averages 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest. He’s also blocked a team-best 47 shots.
Princeton – If there’s an upset in the opening round, the winner of the WVU-Bucknell showdown will face Princeton, the No. 12 seed, which will try to pull off the upset against the Irish.
The Tigers (23-6) went a perfect 14-0 in Ivy League play to claim the regular season crown and then followed that up by winning two games in the first-ever Ivy League tournament to go 16-0 against conference foes. That streak is part of a run of 19 straight victories to end the season.
The non-conference stretch, though, wasn’t nearly as impressive, as Princeton lost four of its first six games and finished just 7-6 in games outside of conference play. The losses came to the likes of BYU, Lehigh, VCU, California, Saint Joseph’s and Monmouth.
Head coach Mitch Henderson, now in his sixth season at his alma mater, gets big contributions from sharp-shooting Devin Cannady, who’s averaging 13.7 points and shooting 42 percent from three-point range, and Steven Cook, who’s also averaging 13.7 per outing, along with 5.1 rebounds.
Princeton is making its 25th NCAA Tournament appearance and its first since 2011.
Gonzaga – The top seed in the West Region, and WVU’s likely opponent should the Mountaineers advance to the Sweet 16, is Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs, who finished the season with a grand total of one loss, a 79-71 setback at home against BYU in the regular season finale. The Zags, though, responded to that loss by winning three straight, including a convincing 74-56 thrashing of Saint Mary’s to
win the WCC Tournament and lock up a No. 1 seed.
Aside from Saint Mary’s, which fell victim to Gonzaga three times this season, the Zags claimed wins over Arizona, Iowa State and Florida on their way to a 32-win season.
Leading the way for the Bulldogs is junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who averages 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.
Arizona – The No. 2 seed in the West, and likely WVU’s opponent should the Mountaineers make a run to the Elite Eight, is Arizona,
which finished 30-4 and won the Pac-12 title by beating No. 3 UCLA and No. 5 Oregon in the conference tournament.
UCLA, Oregon, Gonzaga and Butler were the only teams to beat the Wildcats this season.
Leading the way for head coach Sean Miller’s club, which was upset in the first round a year ago, is Lauri Markkanen, a native of Finland who averages 15.6 points per game. The Wildcats love to shoot the deep ball and are averaging nearly 17 threepoint attempts per contest.