Bucknell guards are focus of West Virginia’s pressure
The Patriot League is where Bucknell plays.
There is no team in that conference that has any real similarities to West Virginia.
None of the Patriots presses full court. None of those teams is as casual when it plays against a supposedly inferior opponent.
None of them convert 80 percent of its free throws one night and 51 percent in the next game.
Consistency — mediocre talent, mediocre results and nothing out of the ordinary — is the day-in, day-out model for the 10 teams in the Patriot League.
But Bucknell is no walk-over.
The Bison defeated NCAA tournament teams Vanderbilt and Mt. St. Mary’s.
There were eight losses this season. Three of those losses were against Wake Forest, Butler and Princeton — all NCAA tourney qualifiers.
West Virginia will press. No matter the collective frame of mind for the game in Buffalo, West Virginia will be sent out pressing.
And Bucknell’s guards will hold the keys to the kingdom.
Those starting guards are 6-foot-1 Kimbal Mackenzie and 5-foot-11 Stephen Brown.
Should West Virginia coach Bob Huggins find enough players concentrating on hustle and effort over a casual and carefree approach, Mackenzie and Brown have the fate of the game in their hands.
Bucknell’s other starters — 6-foot-7 Zach Thomas, 6-foot-9 Nana Foulland and 6-foot-3 Avi Thomas — will be asked to be in the back court when in-bounds passes are made.
The game will be spread wide with players everywhere. Individual efforts from Bucknell’s first eight players will be needed.
Nate Sestina, Bruce Moore and Matt O’Reilly all average more than 10 minutes playing time per game.
West Virginia is seeded fourth in the West Region. It had a No. 5 seed a year ago when savaged by No. 12 Stephen F. Austin.
The Mountaineers should outrebound the Bison and should cause at least 16 turnovers. But “should” isn’t in the starting lineup.
Will there be any sense of urgency? Or will the players be looking to a possible game against Notre Dame on Saturday? Or a possible Spring Break destination when the season ends?
Notre Dame — should it be the second-game opponent — is a much different proposition.
After a close loss to Duke in the ACC championship game, the Fighting Irish are 25-9 overall.
Their most important player in a possible match with West Virginia is aggressive guard Matt Farrell, a 6-foot-1 bundle of spirited emotion who drives to the basket as often as he can get there.
Farrell will relish the responsibility of facing West Virginia’s backcourt pressure. He will want the ball all the time . . .
but he needs Steve Vasturia, VJ Beacham and Rex Pflueger to help him maneuver through the Mountaineer traps and physical presence.
Bonzie Colson is another Irishman who feels nobody is more physical or is mentally tougher than he is.
The physical staredowns between Farrell and Colson and West Virginia’s players could punctuate the game.
Should Notre Dame defeat the Mountaineers, the verdict could be sealed at the foul line.
Notre Dame’s first nine players make a combined 80% of their free throws with Vasturia making 92 percent of his foul shots.
West Virginia can’t match that under any circumstances.
West Virginia would show Notre Dame a 27-8 record . . . and all the losses were by 10 points or fewer.
The Fighting Irish were notoriously slow starters in many of their games, but finally benched Martinas Geben (from St. Maria Goretti in Hagerstown) in favor of Pflueger.
Geben only played a few minutes, but Notre Dame was behind when he took his two fouls, no rebounds and no points to the bench.
Coach Mike Brey has pared his player rotation to the bone. Only Matt Ryan gets more than eight
minutes of playing from his short list of used reserves.
Among the Notre Dame starters, only Pflueger fails to score at least 13.3 points a game.
Notre Dame will not appreciate West Virginia’s attempts at intimidation. The Mountaineers will not appreciate any of Notre Dame’s appearance of coolness under fire or its disregard for anything West Virginia shows it.
Emotions will have to be controlled just under the fiery surface, up-beat tempo and importance of the moment. And the edginess to the game will be apparent to even those who just want to fill in their bracket with the team they selected in the office pool.
Watch the Notre Dame success from the free throw line if they do win.
Watch West Virginia’s furnace-faced vile for the Irish if the Mountaineers are to prevail . . . and move on to the Sweet Sixteen the next weekend.