The 36-0 Kentucky Wildcats take on the 5-seed West Virginia Mountaineers this Thursday with a trip to the elite 8 on the line. Everybody knows that Bob Huggins will be on the sideline for the game and Huggins has had success against Coach Cal. What you may not know is exactly who this West Virginia team is and what their strength and weaknesses really are. There is also the matter of the Cal vs. Huggins story being more hype than substance.
I wanted to take an in-depth look at the teams themselves and see if there were red flags or any real reasons to worry if you are a member of Big Blue Nation. There will be many narratives out there and one of the louder ones will be Coach Huggins' record against Coach Cal. Cal has not fared well against Huggins to the tune of a 2-8 record against him.
It is easy to look at that record and think that Huggins owns Cal... I take that back, it is not easy; it is lazy. Cal has only met up with Huggins on the court three times in the last 10 years. While Cal is 1-2 in those three games, he is 1-1 with UK vs. Huggins. As you will see below, Huggins got Cal twice at Massachusetts when he had a better program in Cincinnati. Both years Huggins beat him he had NCAA Tournament teams at Cincy.
Huggins did go 6-0 vs. Cal after he got to Memphis, but all six of those wins came between 2001-2005. Cal did not start dominating at Memphis until the 2005-06 season. Truth is, Huggins has yet to beat Cal when he is at his peak at Cal's last two programs.
Even in 2010 when they beat UK in the elite 8 it was Cal's first year at Kentucky and that loss had much more to do with shooting 30+ three pointers and settling when we should have been more dynamic. Not to take anything away from Huggins because part of why we took so many ill-advised threes was due to his 1-3-1 zone that dared us to. It was a good coaching job on his part.
The next season we rode the back of Brandon Knight's 30-burger to eliminate West Virginia and Cal gave Huggins a dose of his own medicine by making some halftime adjustments and surging to an 11-0 second half run to the lead and ultimately the win. My point is simply this, take the 2-8 Cal vs. Huggins record with a huge grain of salt as it is clamored about this week.
Having said all that, let us now focus on the UK vs. West Virginia matchup with the statistics below:
Here is what jumps out to me:
- Fouls: West Virginia is the number ONE team in the nation for committing fouls. Conversely, we get to the foul line A LOT. Kentucky went to the free throw line a whopping 881 times, that is the fourth most in the nation (BIG advantage to Kentucky here). Get ready for a late night Big Blue Nation, especially if any combination of the below referees are working the game:
- Offensive Rebounds: We are great at offensive rebounding, top 25 in America. However, nobody does it better than West Virginia. They are the #1 offensive rebounding team in America and we are not good at keeping teams off the offensive boards. This could be a thorn in our side and I have little doubt we will have some frustrating possessions where we are all screaming "BOARD IT!" as my Wildcat Twitter friend Seth would say. The Mountaineers also shoot A LOT of threes and with threes comes long rebounds and long rebounds equal offensive rebounds (Scary Advantage West Virginia here).
HEY, BOARD IT. PLAYING GREAT, BUT BOARD IT.— Seth S (@CentreSIFella) March 15, 2015
- Steals: West Virginia pilfers the ball more than anyone in America does. This does not scare me too much though, mainly because we do not turn the ball over much. We have also played several pressing teams and handled them pretty much with ease (see the two Arkansas games). I think this is a push category simply because their strength in steals lies in the press and we handle the press well.
- Points Per Possession: UK is a top ten team in points per possession and this game should only make that number rise. With West Virginia's aggressive approach to going for steals and our propensity to take it hard to the rim, I think we will see a lot of dunks, layups and and-ones. Not to mention, we are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in America too, I think we will have just as many possessions where we have them screaming at the TV to rebound it (BIG advantage UK here).
- Field Goal Percentage and FG Defense: This is where UK has the potential to absolutely dominate this game and make a statement. Kentucky has shot 47% against a top 50 schedule, now they will be facing a team that is ranked 324th in Field Goal Percentage Defense. Between UK's ability to handle the press, offensive rebounding, points per possession and WVU's FG % defense... it could be a long night for Huggins and the boys (Advantage UK here)
West Virginia is a quality team, a worthy opponent, but there would have to be a lot of things go right for them to take down the ‘Cats. Anyone can beat anyone on a given night, and in the Big Dance... ESPECIALLY anyone can beat anyone on any given night. Having said all that, for West Virginia to beat Kentucky on Thursday night, I think they would have to hit 10+ three pointers, turn the cats over 15+ times and somehow not get called for their normal 23 fouls per game.
Kentucky would also need to shoot fewer than 40% against one of the worst defensive teams in America and they would have to shoot around 50% against the best defensive shooting team in America. Considering the Huggins vs. Cal narrative is more story than substance, plus all the factors that need to go right for them and go wrong for us... I like our team.
I did not even need to follow Cincinnati's "blueprint" to beating us either, LOL.