9:45 p.m. ET, CBS
The pressure on Kentucky to remain undefeated grows as each game passes. Now that the Wildcats are just four wins away from 40-0 and a national title, the intensity is reaching a new high.
West Virginia is playing with house money at this point, with basically no one expecting them to win this game. A team that likes to play fast and loose will have no reason not to do so in this one, so expect a lot of running and gunning out of the Mountaineers. If they can goad UK into a running game and get the Wildcats sloppy, anything could happen.
If John Calipari needed something to get his players focused on this game rather than the season's end game, West Virginia provided it. Freshman guard Daxter Miles, Jr. predicted a Mountaineer win, saying that the Wildcats "don't play hard". I like your moxie, kid, but don't poke the beast next time.
Kentucky comes into this game at No. 1 in the KenPom ratings, while West Virginia is No. 26. Both teams are balanced in their efficiencies. UK is No. 6 in offensive and No. 1 in defensive efficiency. WVU is No. 36 in offensive and No. 38 in defensive efficiency. It's rare these days to get two teams in the same game that aren't more heavy in one than the other.
West Virginia loves to get up and down the floor, ranking 29th nationally at 68.3 possessions per 40 minutes. Kentucky takes its time more often, coming in 223rd in the country at 63.9 possessions per 40 minutes. The Wildcats aren't averse to pushing the tempo at times, but they won't go into the full court press to make things happen like the Mountaineers do.
Kentucky played seven games against teams in West Virginia's neighborhood, which I define as being within ten spots in the KenPom ratings above or below. The Cats also played three games against opponents notably better and six games against opponents notably worse but not by a ton.
|North Carolina||H||14||W4||W, 84-70|
Kentucky won all of these games, of course, but the ones against the seven comparable foes weren't that close. Only one, the game against Vandy, was under double digits, and the average margin of victory was 17.7 points. Other than the rivalry game against Louisville, all of the close calls actually came against the teams notably worse than WVU. Kentucky gets up for the big games.
West Virginia didn't play anyone in Kentucky's neighborhood, though it did play 11 games against top-25 KenPom teams.
|Iowa State||H||16||S3||L, 74-72|
|Iowa State||R||16||S3||L, 79-59|
|Kansas||R||13||MW2||L, 76-69 OT|
WVU was only 3-8 in these games, and all three victories came at home. Many of the losses were plain old blowouts: 77-50 to Texas, 71-52 to Oklahoma, 79-59 to Iowa State, 78-66 to Baylor. Given that the crowd is likely to be pro-Kentucky, as no one travels as well as Wildcats fans do, this bodes poorly for the Mountaineers' chances. They could keep it close, like they did in an overtime road loss to Kansas, but they could also get blown off the floor.
Players to Watch
The top Mountaineer is Juwon Staten, a senior guard who averages 14.2 points and 4.8 assists on the season. His top teammate is forward Devin Williams, a 6'9" forward who averages 11.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Miles has come on as of late, picking up slack while Staten missed some games late in the season. He's one UK will have to keep track of as well.
Tonight will be an opportunity for the Wildcats' big men like Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein to shine. No one in WVU's regular rotation is taller than 6'9", so they have a chance to dominate.
In five other tournament appearances as a 1-seed, John Calipari has made it at least as far as the Elite Eight. The 2009 tournament was the only time he lost in the Sweet 16 as even a 2-seed in three such chances. Bob Huggins has made it past the Sweet 16 only four times in his career, each time as a 4-seed or better. That means he's advanced to the Elite EIght in only a third of his 12 tournament appearances as a 5-seed or better.
Notably, Huggins is 8-2 against Calipari all-time. No one else is close to that record against Cal among coaches who have faced him at least ten times.
This game wouldn't have been a bad spot to catch Kentucky a bit off guard. West Virginia plays a style that Kentucky doesn't see all that often, and Huggins has had a lot of success against Calipari in the past. Miles's comments made sure that UK won't be sleeping through this game, though.
Just looking at the coaches' histories, Calipari doesn't look done yet while this is about where Huggins bows out. I can imagine the Mountaineers causing the Wildcats some problems early, but I think Kentucky pulls away late.
Kentucky 81, West Virginia 70