No. 10 West Virginia (19-13) vs. No. 7 Gonzaga (25-6), 7:20 p.m. ET
When the bracket came up and Gonzaga players saw they were traveling 2,000 miles across the country to play a team that had a simple bus ride up the highway, they didn’t groan.
Frankly, they didn’t even react.
They’re used to it.
“I feel if you’re at Gonzaga, you come into this tournament, you’re guaranteed to have a backyard team,’’ Robert Sacre said. “You always have to go somewhere else, in someone else’s backyard, no matter if you’re a higher seed.’’
Lest anyone think he’s just a West Coast whiner, consider 2008, when Gonzaga was the No. 7 seed and was slated to play Davidson in North Carolina. The Zags lost. In 2010, Gonzaga was the No. 8 seed and met up with top-seeded Syracuse in Buffalo in Round 2.
And now the Zags, seventh again, are but a stone’s throw away from West Virginia’s Morgantown address.
Conspiracy theory, anyone?
“The one thing we try to impart on our guys is control what you can control,’’ coach Mark Few said. “We don’t have any control of when and where.’’
Few, this season, is at least blessed with a young roster that doesn’t know any better. Gonzaga has five freshmen on the roster, all making their NCAA tournament debut.
They, Few said, were just happy to see their name on the screen.
Not that playing so close to home is easy. Bob Huggins has a season-ticket holder base of 8,000 and 500 tickets to share.
That’s bad math. But the coach has faith in his Mountaineers fans’ craftiness and fully expects they’ll find a way to wrangle some tickets for the game.
Meanwhile, he’s just happy he made it.
“They were talking about flying 2,000 miles,’’ Huggins said. “I said, ‘They’ve never rode with our bus driver. I’m stressed from the time I get in the bus.'’’
Who to watch:
Gonzaga’s Sacre: The Zags’ forward said he was "salivating" for the chance to play some East Coast-style basketball, where power is valued more than finesse. He’ll get his chance against the Mountaineers’ Kevin Jones. Jones can score down low and on a turnaround but he is especially lethal on the boards, where he averages 11 rebounds per game.
West Virginia’s Truck Bryant: The point guard ought to have the edge against the Zags’ younger backcourt, but it’s more than ballhandling Bryant has to take care of. It’s shooting. He’s been this side of terrible much of the season, shooting just 36.2 percent from the floor. That inefficiency puts way too much pressure and responsibility on Jones. Bryant needs to score.
What to watch: The inside game. Sacre wants a challenge? He and teammate Elias Harris are going to get one from Jones and Deniz Kilicli. Rebounding will be critical for both teams, but especially for the Mountaineers, who don’t exactly throw it in with any frequency from outside.
No. 15 Loyola (24-8) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (27-7), 9:50 p.m. ET
Jimmy Patsos won the news conference.
Can he win the game?
The affable Loyola coach, as expected, had the gathered media in stitches, cracking jokes and telling stories. He’s enjoying a mini reunion here, what with so many of Gary Williams' old staff assembled in Pittsburgh -- Patsos, Billy Hahn, an assistant at West Virginia, and Dave Dickerson, now on the Ohio State staff -- and he played it all up perfectly.
That left Buckeyes coach Thad Matta to play the straight man, explaining where Ohio State, still viewed by many as a football school, fits on the national consciousness and how difficult it is to continue success in the age of one-and-done.
It was earnest and honest and not nearly as entertaining as Patsos, who at one time joked his biggest failure was sticking so hard to Williams’ coaching philosophies.
“Gary Williams has had assistants like Rick Barnes, Fran Fraschilla, all these guys,’’ he said. “I shouldn’t say this, but they’re probably more successful because they didn’t run all his stuff so much.’’
But in between the jokes, Patsos admitted to a little secret: He isn’t afraid to dream. His team will be wild underdogs against the Buckeyes, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to cede victory.
“When you have a [16-seed] against a 1, there are no numbers,’’ Patsos said. “A 15 and 2, it happens once every two or three years. I don’t see it as a long shot. It’s 40 minutes, 10 four-minute segments. We have to win six of them. We stole that from Thad, by the way. He used to do that at Xavier.’’
Patsos invoked other 15-2 upsets for his Greyhounds, reminding them that in the old Igloo, the downtown Pittsburgh arena currently being torn down across the street from the Consol Energy Center, Coppin State took down South Carolina in 1997.
That, of course, is ancient history to the Greyhounds, mere toddlers back then.
“I remember George Mason went on a run and beat a lot of good teams,’’ Dylon Cormier said.
Who to watch:
Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger: This is simple. Loyola doesn’t have a player with Sullinger's size or ability. If the Buckeyes can get the ball to him consistently, they will easily win.
Loyola’s Erik Etherly: The MAAC tournament's most outstanding player, Etherly led his team in scoring and rebounding for the title. The junior has been good all season, averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds but he has never faced anyone quite like Sullinger. Etherly may not win the war, but he’s got to be able to hold his ground.
What to watch: The pace. Loyola wants to go; Ohio State wants to grind. If the Greyhounds can make like their namesake, they could potentially wear down the thin Ohio State bench. If not, this could be a long game for the MAAC champions. “If we can get the game going fast, we have a chance,’’ Patsos said. “If they put us in the meat grinder and go slow, Sullinger goes to work, you can call me at the 410 [area code]. I’ll be in Baltimore Friday by noon.’’