Zags, generally known more for skill than toughness, will need to man up when they open the NCAA tournament Thursday against a rugged Big East team.

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PITTSBURGH — Doug Gottlieb, the brash but insightful ESPN analyst, set the tone just a couple of hours after Gonzaga found itself matched against West Virginia in the NCAA tournament.

“The way to beat Gonzaga,” he said, “is to out-tough them.”

If that’s true, does it follow that the worst thing the Zags could be facing tonight is a team from the Big East? A team coached by Bob Huggins, who in his next life might be a prison guard?

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Doesn’t it?

“Basically,” said Gonzaga assistant coach Donnie Daniels, “it’s all perception. We’re battling perception more than anything.”

The perception, as Daniels points out, is that Big East teams are peopled by rugged products of the playground, and you’re spoiling for an alley fight when you play them. On the other hand, the image of Gonzaga tends to be skill over strength.

The numbers aren’t so convincing. In the past five seasons, the Zags have played teams like Connecticut, Syracuse, St. John’s and Marquette. They’ve gone 5-3 against them.

In Gonzaga’s 14-year NCAA-tournament run, GU is 8-7 against the Big East.

“It’s frustrating to see that people think we’re soft all the time,” said Robert Sacre, the Gonzaga center. “We’re not too worried about it; we’ll just have to prove it out on the court.”

There are moments when Gonzaga succumbs to toughness, such as when it surrendered a monster game by Michigan State’s Draymond Green back in December. But Green punishes just about everybody like that, and indeed, when the night was done and the Spartans had won 74-67, Gonzaga had three more rebounds.

Mike Hart, the walk-on from Portland, heard the Gottlieb comment and rolled his eyes. Hart ripped a rebound away from a Saint Mary’s big man in the WCC final, and Hart tied up Matthew Dellavedova in backcourt to give Gonzaga a chance to send the game to overtime.

“That’s something I’d always heard about Gonzaga when I got here,” he said of the soft label. “When I’ve been here, we want to be the tougher team every night. The 25 games we won, that’s when we were the tougher team. When we lost, we weren’t.”

West Virginia has a healthy 6.8 rebounding margin, while Gonzaga’s is 6.5. Since the number is only 6.9 against West Coast Conference opponents, it’s hard to make the case that GU built up numbers because of a weak league. Gonzaga out-rebounded Notre Dame by eight, Arizona by 14, Xavier by 13.

“You don’t get this far without being tough,” Daniels insists. “I think we’re tough, I think West Virginia is tough. Either you have to win four games in four days (in a league tournament), or do a great body of work.”

That work was good enough to win both teams at-large berths. West Virginia was a bit of a question mark down the stretch, but was carried along by a tide that washed nine Big East teams into the tournament.

“I think it’s more about us,” said Mountaineers senior guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant. “We came here to win … and it just happens Gonzaga is our first opponent.”

Deniz Kilicli, the 6-foot-9 Turkish import, took a dim view of the notion that Gonzaga can hang with West Virginia in the big-boy metrics.

“I think they’re very physical in their conference, but we play Big East,” Kilicli said. “Kevin (Jones) and I, play guys like Sacre and (Elias) Harris 16, 17 times … we’ll see what’s going to happen. I think we’re going to beat them on the physical end.”

The 6-8 Jones is the nation’s No. 1 offensive rebounder. As Gonzaga coach Mark Few puts it, “Better box somebody out. When the shot goes up, they’re coming.”

Not without a fight, Sacre vows.

“We’re ready for West Virginia,” he said. “Let’s get this game started.”

Notes

• West Virginia has made it to the Sweet 16 five times in its last seven NCAA appearances, dating to 1998. That’s the same number of Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 appearances back to 1999.

• Huggins is the 20th Division I head coach to win 700 games.

• The only two players in West Virginia history to score 1,700 points and record 1,000 rebounds: Jones and Jerry West.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com