It’s time for the Sweet Sixteen, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, the game we have waited all week on. Tonight, the West Virginia Mountaineers and Kentucky Wildcats meet in what seems, by the media focus, to be a titanic matchup. I suppose if you consider only the coaches, they are right — Bob Huggins and John Calipari are two of the game’s greats, and any matchup between them has got to be worth watching.
These two teams could not be more different. Kentucky is a team full of high-school superstars, taller than almost any team in America including the NBA, and full of future professional basketball players. West Virginia is a team of blue-collar tough-guys, overachievers who refuse to let their lack of size and comparative lesser talent matter to their objectives of basketball success. As a Kentucky fan, they remind me very much of Rick Pitino’s early Kentucky teams before Jamal Mashburn came along. This team has been dangerous all season, and are no less dangerous against the Wildcats tonight.
|Date:||Thursday, March 26th|
|Time||9:45 PM EDT|
|Place:||Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH|
|Radio:||UK Sports Network|
|Live Video:||NCAA March Madness|
|Live Audio:||Westwood One|
Season so far for West Virginia
West Virginia started the season on a 14-1 run, losing only to LSU at home, which makes the Bayou Bengal’s early flameout all the more perplexing, as winning in the Mountain State is was surpassingly difficult this season with only 3 total teams accomplishing that feat.
WVU’s best victories have been against Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, who was #25 in Kenpom.com’s rankings at the time. They also beat fellow Sweet Sixteen member North Carolina State, but overall, their pre-conference schedule was pretty weak.
To get tho this point, they beat the Buffalo Bulls (you remember them, right?) by 6 and cruised to victory over the Maryland Terrapins after their star point guard was forced to leave the game with injuries.
West Virginia and Kentucky have a fairly long history of 19 total contests. For two teams who have never been in the same conference or really any kind of rival, that's a good number. Five of those meetings took place in the UKIT (now defunct), three in the NCAA Tournament, three in pre-season tournaments and one in the NIT. The others were just regular-season games, and the Wildcats are 14-5 all time in the 19 meetings between the schools.
In the John Calipari era, this will be the third meeting in six seasons for the ‘Cats and the ‘Eers, the first famously being the defeat of #2 ranked Kentucky in the famous 1-3-1 game. The second meeting was a rematch the following year which Kentucky won. The rubber match will take place tonight.
|4||Daxter Miles Jr.||S||G||6-3||185||Fr.||34||34||20.6||7.5||2.3||1.0||1.1||0.1|
|+||Eligible transfer/red shirt|
|&||Injured, not available|
|Rank and Records||WVU||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#36||#45|
|RPI Top 50||7-8||12-0|
West Virginia Team Notes
West Virginia …
- … forces a higher turnover percentage than any other Division I team.
- … is a below-average shooting team from any distance, including free throws.
- … is a very poor defensive team when it comes to shooting percentage.
- … is an outstanding offensive rebounding team, #4 in the nation.
- … does not jack up that many threes, despite their reputation. WVU averages 33.7 3-point attempts per FGA, slightly below the Division I average.
- … allows opponents to shoot almost 37% from three.
- … allows opponents to shoot almost 52% from two.
- … shares the ball very well, much like Kentucky.
- … gets to the line almost as much as Kentucky does.
- … like Kentucky, is only about an average defensive rebounding team.
West Virginia Player notes
Senior guard Juwon Staten is the star of the team, and its point guard. He attacks the rim with abandon, draws a lot of fouls, and shoots a good percentage from three (.352). He is also a good but not great defender, and much of that is predicated upon needing to keep him in the game. Andrew Harrison, in particular, should attack him off the dribble. WVU loses a lug nut if he has to sit.
Sophomore Devin Williams represents the beef of this team, and is the leading scorer and rebounder. He has good size at 6‘9"/255#, and is one of the best rebounders in America. He draws a lot of fouls, also. Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson will likely be his man, and both those guys are bigger and longer than he is.
Daxter Miles Jr., the trash-talking freshman who contended that Kentucky didn’t play hard, is a 6‘3" guard who shoots the three reasonably well but also goes hard to the hole. He is a poor free throw shooter and a good defender, although likely most of his steals come as result of the press. Most likely, Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker will be checking Miles. Both those guys are much bigger and longer than Miles is, but Miles may have a quickness advantage on them.
Jonathan Holton is a 6‘7" undersized power forward who is a terrific offensive rebounder and good shot blocker. He rarely will launch a three, and prefers to do his damage inside the arc, where he shoots the best percentage on the team (.552). Willie Cauley-Stein will likely be his opposite number, and that’s a tough matchup on both ends for him.
Jevon Carter is a 6‘2" guard who is mostly a steals specialist, ranking #8 in the nation in thefts. Carter is a below-average 3-point shooter and shoots mostly jumpshots, judging by his numbers. He also has a low turnover and high assist rate, which makes him the likely back up for Staten. I imagine everyone will guard him at some point, but Trey Lyles will probably start out checking him. No idea how a guy that small guards Lyles in the half court.
Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins are the size off the bench, both checking in at 6‘9"/240# or so. Macon gets more minutes and is a good shot blocker. Watkins is the better rebounder. Both are foul-prone in a big way, averaging 6+ fouls per 40 minutes.
Gary Browne is another 6‘1" senior guard who comes off the bench, along with junior Jaysean Paige. Both shoot the three well at 38.5%. Browne is a very good defender, and Paige is the most foul-prone guard on the team at 6.6 fouls/40 minues.
- Junior forward Alex Poythress tore his ACL early in the year, and is out for the season.
- Senior forward Kevin Noreen injured his rotator cuff in a weightlifting session back in October, forcing surgery that had a 6-8 month recovery. He is out for the year.
Make no mistake, West Virginia deserves to be here. They play very hard, and despite having some major personnel challenges by Division I basketball standards, they have found a way to be the third best team in the rugged Big 12, and that is no mean feat. The Mountaineers have a well-deserved reputation for creating havoc on the basketball floor, much like some Kentucky teams we may remember from back in the glorious mid-1990’s. Just as underestimating those teams was a fool’s errand, underestimating this undersized but big-hearted West Virginia team would be folly.
But no matter how highly you regard their fight, WVU faces titanic challenges in this game. Kentucky is bigger, stronger, and more skilled at virtually every position, and Kentucky, unlike every other opponent they have faced, is just as deep as the Mountaineers. Any strategy by WVU that includes wearing Kentucky down will likely fail, and in fact, it’s usually Kentucky who wears other teams down.
Also unlike the Mountaineers’ previous foes, Kentucky has scoring weapons at every single position, and size mismatches to go along with them. Already a very poor half-court defensive team, it is hard to see how the Mountaineers slow down the Wildcats in the half court. If form holds, it is likely to be a parade to the free throw line for the Wildcats tonight. How well they succeed making unguarded 15-footers will go a long way to inform the outcome of this.
West Virgina will press, of course, and that pressure will generate some turnovers. Kentucky must keep turnovers under 20% to be virtually assured of victory, but UK has many paths to victory that don’t require very low turnovers. West Virginia, statistically, cannot win unless they generate at least 20% turnovers, they shoot the ball too poorly and are significantly undersized.
I suppose I should mention at this point that West Virginia is going up against the #1 defensive efficiency team in the country in the Kentucky Wildcats. Not even the Big 12 can prepare them for that, because Kentucky is nearly 5 points more stingy per 100 possessions than the best DE team (Oklahoma) that WVU has played to date. Not only that, the Mountaineers have not faced a single team with the offensive efficiency of Kentucky, and they have lost to the ones that are close: Iowa St. and Baylor.
If VWU tries to get Kentucky into an up-and-down track meet, they are going to have to perform far above their season averages to win. Kentucky has played at least three games against pressing, up-tempo teams this season: the Eastern Kentucky Colonels once, and the Arkansas Razorbacks twice. None of them were close. Interestingly, Eastern is the team that most resembles the Mountaineers both in size and style, and the Wildcats defenestrated them by 33 points. WVU is more talented than Eastern, though, so that will matter.
Bottom line: West Virginia’s path to victory is a very narrow and treacherous one. They must get all of a group of things to have a chance: high turnovers, low opponent shooting percentage, and high offensive rebounding. In addition, they must get a couple of: Kentucky foul trouble, poor free throw shooting, overconfidence from Kentucky, a favorable whistle and a good night shooting the ball, particularly from three. In other words, it’s a very heavy lift for a brave, but overachieving WVU squad.