All season long, nobody has been able to stop the undefeated No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats. Come tomorrow night, the next team to take on that task will be the Bob Huggins-led No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers.
On the whole, it was a fine season for West Virginia. Not only did the team go 23-8 (11-7 Big 12) to post its best record since moving from the Big East to the Big 12 three seasons ago, but it also managed to beat perennial Big 12 powerhouse Kansas in a home game on February 16. Considering how the team went through something of a transitionary period after making the Final Four back in 2010 and then lost star guard De’Sean Butler to the pros, that’s a decent season to have in a far tougher conference.
West Virginia has also proven its worth in the big dance thus far. On top of fighting off a tough and scrappy Buffalo Bulls squad to kick off their tournament run, the Mountaineers also used their signature aggressive man-to-man defense to eliminate an incredibly tough Maryland Terrapins team. In that 69-59 victory, West Virginia forced an eye-popping 23 turnovers and won despite shooting just 40 percent from the field. Despite being a popular pick for an early exit, including by President Obama, it’s clear that the Mountaineers now mean business.
That attitude is going to be key against a Kentucky Wildcats team that has run wild through opponent after opponent all season long, and Coach Huggins’s strong defensive philosophy succeeding is the key to pulling off what would easily be the biggest upset of the tournament. Call me crazy, but it can easily be done.
You see, even in victory last weekend, Kentucky had a hard time getting the ball rolling against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Sure, the Wildcats ended up winning 64-51, but they also shot just 37 percent from the field and were out-rebounded 45-38. Were it not for Cincinnati shooting just under 32 percent for the game, this article would probably be sounding very different!
Though Kentucky is by far a better team on paper, West Virginia’s strong defensive attack is just the thing that could knock John Calipari’s boys out of the tournament. As anyone could tell you, guard play is key in the big dance and Kentucky’s Harrison twins are just too streaky and rely far too much on shooting threes.
In the tournament alone, Aaron Harrison is averaging just eight points per game on 31 percent shooting, and nine of his 16 field goal attempts have been from long range. His brother Andrew has fared slightly better in shooting 43 percent from the floor and only having four of 14 overall attempts come from long range, but he’s still only posting 9.5 points per contest.
Granted, that isn’t to say that the Harrisons’ performances are the end-all be-all of Kentucky’s tournament hopes. The team’s roster is stacked from top to bottom, with Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles manning the frontcourt to guys like Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis working the guard positions. If one man underperforms on Kentucky, another can easily step up and pick up the slack.
Just the same, it’s going to be hard for the Wildcats’ guards to feed the ball to the bigs in the paint if they’re getting smothered by the trademark defense that has led the Mountaineers’ fans to sometimes dub the school “Press Virginia.” The key to an upset tomorrow night is to play defense so tight that jump shots are forced and ball movement is limited, while playing disciplined high-percentage basketball on the other side of the court. That could prove to be tough, given Kentucky’s size and the fact that Mountaineers leading scorer Juwan Staten shot just 42 percent on the season, but West Virginia is still a tough team that can give Kentucky a run for its money if it just stays committed to defense.
That all being said, can West Virginia achieve the impossible and knock Kentucky out of the tournament? The odds say no, as the Mountaineers are currently 13 1/2 point underdogs. However, that number is still greatly inflated.
What the numbers won’t tell you is that tomorrow night’s game is being played at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, just about three-and-a-half hours away from West Virginia’s Morgantown campus. The Wildcats’ hometown of Lexington isn’t much further away, at five hours, but the arena is close enough to Mountaineer territory that it could basically end up being a home game for the players and Coach Huggins, who was born and raised in Ohio himself.
Thus, don’t be so quick to put your money on Kentucky in this game, even though it’s highly likely that they will indeed win. This West Virginia squad is special and if there’s anybody that can stun the Wildcats back home, it’s them!
*Section Photo credit to Tony Dejak, AP Photo; Featured Photo (above) credit to iSportsWeb