By PAUL GOTHAM
BUFFALO, NY — The Bucknell Bison left behind one storm in Lewisburg, PA to find another in western New York. That should prepare them well for what they will encounter Thursday when they take court at the Key Bank Center.
The West Virginia Mountaineers create their tempestuous climate leading the nation in turnover margin (8.2), turnovers forced per game (20.4) and steals (10.4), and that’s just the half of it.
Just don’t expect the No. 13-seed Bison to back down when they open play in the NCAA Tournament’s West region against the fourth-seeded Mountaineers.
“Obviously, we’re going to turn the ball over,” said Bucknell sophomore guard Kimbal Mackenzie. “That’s what they do. We just got to continue to play confidently throughout the game. If we can get down the court, we can get some good open looks.”
West Virginia’s pressure defense leads directly to its offense creating an average of 25.4 points per game off turnovers. The Mountaineers have scored as many as 47 points in a 100-41 victory over New Hampshire earlier in the season and have not scored in single digits this season on points off miscues. They forced 29 turnovers when they beat then No. 1 Baylor, 89-68.
“They gamble a lot,” Mackenzie added. “They’re not always in control, but that plays to their advantage as well. What makes them good is what we can attack.”
Mountaineer opponents turn over the ball 27.5 percent of their possessions.
“What we have to limit is our live ball turnovers where we’re passing it and they’re able to get run outs. Five-second violations. Jump balls. Those are turnovers we’ll live with more so than we’re passing it or we’re throwing it up in the air, they’re going and getting it and going on a fast break.”
“Guys get open and make outlets,” Bison junior guard Stephen Brown said. “Just being smart with the ball, looking for outlets and the coaches do a really good job of preparing us. Just looking at film, looking at different options that other teams have done successfully against a team that also pressures. So, going into it, I think, we’re really prepared for what they have for us, knowing about their pressure.”
West Virginia’s field-goal shooting percentage of 45.8 ranks 96th in the country. It doesn’t matter. The Mountaineers pour in 82 points per game (21st) – a direct reflection of their shot attempt differential which has WVU taking 2,153 shots to 1,791 for their opponents.
“No matter how big and good you are, there’s somebody that’s going to be open somewhere,” Bucknell second-year coach Nathan Davis said. “As much as not having live ball turnovers, you do want to play under control when you do have opportunities so that you’re ready to finish and ready to knock down shots and those types of things.”
Bucknell (26-8) has won six straight and seven of eight heading into Thursday’s 2:45 tipoff.
Conference Player of the Year, Nana Foulland scored 17 and blocked three shots in Bucknell’s 81-65 win over Lehigh in the Patriot League championship game.
“I know our guards will be wearing down,” Foulland said about WVU’s pressure. “As much as I can help I’m going to try. A lot of times I have to come back and get the ball if we can’t get it across. Just try to be aggressive and get to the middle of the floor.”
Foulland is shooting 64.3 percent from the floor for the past 18 games. The Bison rank 25th in the country shooting 48.1 percent from the floor.
Bucknell is making its first NCAA Tournament since 2013.
West Virginia has appeared in eight of the last 10 NCAA Tournaments. Last season, the Mountaineers fell in the first round to No. 14-seed Stephen F. Austin, 70-56.
“We know it’s going to happen,” Mackenzie said of the turnovers. “If it does happen, we just got to move on and get the next one.”