By MIKE CASAZZA
BUFFALO, New York — One one end of the floor Thursday will be the team that hastens the pace of the game, that toys with teams by taking control of the tempo.
And on the other end will be West Virginia.
The Bison, seeded No. 13 in the West region, and the No. 4 seed Mountaineers play in the first round in a 2:45 p.m. game on CBS. The winner at the KeyBank Center advances to play Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s opening game between Notre Dame and Princeton.
The Mountaineers (26-8) like to stand between a team and its plans. They’re renowned throughout the bracket for their pressing ways, and it is their goal to hassle opponents and make them play faster than what they’re used to. It is then when the turnovers begin, the runs commence and the fatigue first appears, and before long WVU has a lead, a swagger and a deeper bench that’s eager to keep it going.
All the pace and all the turnovers allow the Mountaineers to average 77.4 possessions per game. Bucknell, the Patriot League’s regular-season and tournament champion that doesn’t press and will sometimes play a matchup zone that can freeze an opponent, averages 74.7 possessions per game.
“They’re known for pressing and speeding people up, but we do play fast,” freshman guard Avi Toomer said. “We’re capable of playing fast and capable of putting up a lot of numbers. I feel like it can work to our advantage. All we’ve got to do is be strong with the ball and make the right decisions in the right places. We’ve got people who can shoot and who can score.”
The Bison (26-8) enjoy transition opportunities, and they’re happy shooting 3-pointers from far away and early in a possession, but they also know it won’t be so simple against WVU. They did what they could to create conditions in practice that might mimic what they encounter in the game, but their experience against the press this season is limited to games in November against Manhattan and in December against Mount St. Mary’s — teams WVU beat by 47 and 31 points.
“We’ve done the best we can, but there will be an adjustment period as the game gets started and we get used to the length and athleticism,” coach Nate Davis said. “But I think when all is said and done, we’ll be able to compete at a pretty high level.”
Some of the Mountaineers liken Bucknell to Iowa State, a team of shooters and scorers that WVU has played three times this season and twice in the past two weeks. Whether foreign or familiar, the Bison provide challenges the Mountaineers have to meet.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re there on the catch and make them try to bounce it,” forward Esa Ahmad said. “It’s important we run them off the (3-point) line and force them to the help (defense).”
Bucknell’s attack isn’t about fast breaks. It’s about sudden offense and multiple scorers. The Bison do things fast, whether that’s fast shots, fast passes or fast cuts.
“I think a lot of people get caught up in thinking speed means you have to score fast and take a shot as soon as you can get it, but there’s a difference between playing fast and what we call playing fast and smart,” point guard Stephen Brown said.
“If we play fast and smart and move the ball fast and guys are cutting and moving fast, then we can get the shot we want, even if West Virginia wants to pressure us and get us out of our comfort zone.”
What Bucknell does know about the Mountaineers and their press is that there have been times this season when they’ve decided not to press because it wasn’t effective or because opponents were breaking it and scoring with ease.
The Bison have seen WVU turn dribblers loose for drives and scores. They’ve seen WVU scatter to recover, which leaves shooters open for 3-pointers. They’ve seen WVU chase the ball more than the defense has trapped it. Whatever the outcome has been for the Mountaineers, the cause has been the opponent’s ability to stay out of trouble.
“It’s been the teams that find the open guy and play together and make the simple pass,” Brown said. “If a guy’s open in the middle, pass it to him. Then he passes it to the next guy, and you get the ball up the floor rather than trying to dribble through the press.
“I think the teams that have not been very successful have taken on the trap and waited for two guys to come down and run at them instead of making the pass and making the instinctive play.”
The Bison don’t want to let WVU set the pressure or the tempo. If WVU scores, they want to get the ball in play as quickly as possible. If the Bison get a rebound, they want to get it to a point guard quickly. Then they want to get across half court and operate their offense, which can pause for a moment to let teammates recover or continue on toward a score before the defense can recuperate.
“If we stay at our pace and not get sped up because of them, we’ll be fine,” guard Matt O’Reilly said. “We like to get out and run. We like to shoot transition 3s. We’ve got pretty good tempo, and I think tempo is something we’d still like to improve on.
“We’d like to be faster than we are. We have a style of play that matches up well, but at the same time, we want to stay composed and not let them get us out of control.”
See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail