PITTSBURGH (AP) - Deniz Kilicli wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. Honest.
Still, the burly West Virginia center just kind of shook his head when asked if he thought seventh-seeded Gonzaga had the chops to mix it up against the 10th-seeded Mountaineers in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
“I think they’re physical in their conference, but we play in the Big East,” Kilicli said. “I play guys like (Robert) Sacre and (Elias) Harris 16 times, 17 times you know. So I think they’re not going to be as prepared as we are, but they’re definitely physical and they want to play physical.”
Sacre understands the perception the style of play in the West Coast Conference is a little kinder, a little gentler. He’d love nothing more than to blow it out of the water one rebound at a time against one of the most bruising teams in the country.
“The mentality of basketball in the West Coast is changing, becoming a more physical game,” Sacre said. “It’s great to see that. You know what? I feel we can compete with any team in the country.”
Even if the Bulldogs have to go crosscountry to do it. The selection committee’s reward to the Bulldogs (25-6) for making the tournament for a 14th straight season? A 2,200-mile trip east to face a team that plays a short 75-mile drive south from the Consol Energy Center.
Same as it ever was.
“I feel if you’re at Gonzaga, you come into this tournament you’re guaranteed to have a backyard team,” Sacre said. “You always have to go somewhere else, in someone else’s backyard, no matter if you’re the higher seed.”
The Bulldogs just hope for a better result this time. They made a similar trip to Raleigh, N.C., during the 2008 tournament only to get upended by 10th-seeded Davidson and star Steph Curry.
That’s ancient history for one of the more inexperienced teams Gonzaga has brought to the postseason. That might not be a terrible thing. Freshman guard Kevin Pangos - the WCC newcomer of the year - is averaging 13.8 points and hardly seems intimidated by the stage.
“I’ve always dreamt of playing at this level,” he said. “At the same time I’m just going to treat it as any other game, play as hard as I can, not really look at any of the March Madness or blow it up too much.”
If he does, odds are the Mountaineers will be only too happy to send Pangos back to reality. Though West Virginia (19-13) has struggled to close out opponents - 10 of its 13 losses have come by a combined 29 points - it plays with all the hallmarks of a typical Bob Huggins-coached team.
Kilicli and All-Big East forward Kevin Jones provide a potent front line and the backcourt comes at opponents in waves.
“Everybody thinks we’re the most physical team,” guard Truck Bryant said. “I guess that’s just how hard we play. We don’t even know we’re physical.”
Maybe, but the Bulldogs do. Gonzaga coach Mark Few called the Mountaineers “unbelievably” tough, kind of like their coach.
“I think they share those same kinds of qualities kind of year in and year out,” Few said.
West Virginia’s grit doesn’t always overcome its many flaws. The Mountaineers struggle offensively when Jones is double-teamed and Bryant can’t find his shot. The roster is littered with nine freshmen who will be making their tournament debut.
Of course, there’s no sense in complaining about lack of tournament experience to Huggins, and his players know it.
“It’s rough,” freshman guard Jabarie Hinds said. “We have to catch up on a lot of things … Some games have been rough but I’ve been learning from everything. Some games I have really bad games, I wasn’t really in it, but I have to just keep pushing myself and getting better.”
It’s the only way to survive when playing for Huggins, who isn’t sure Gonzaga is at a disadvantage playing so far away from home.
“I said, `They’ve never rode with our bus driver,’” Huggins said. “I’m stressed from the time I get on the bus.”