WVU Plays Host To Kentucky For The First Time In 47 Years
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Bob Huggins is a straight shooter when it comes to the match-up with Kentucky. He just hopes his team follows suit.
In a game that has been anticipated since the very inception of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, No. 7 West Virginia will play host to the Wildcats at 7 p.m. Saturday. But in a twist, it’s the Mountaineers who enter with the ranking and thoughts of a high NCAA Tournament seed. Kentucky, struggling at times with youth, enters at 15-5 with losses in two of the last three and three of the last five. UK has also dropped games to Kansas and UCLA.
“It’s not like we haven’t won before,” Huggins said. “It’s not going to be groundbreaking. You have two good teams playing and they have a great coach. He is a Hall of Famer. But I would hope we are well past the point where we are in awe of somebody. They have a great RPI. It would help our RPI tremendously.”
That’s truly the bottom line. The Mountaineers are 16-4 with the 24th-best RPI in the nation according to RealTimeRPI.com. Kentucky is 18th, exactly where WVU was before it dropped six spots after the road loss to TCU. Both teams have questions entering. For Kentucky, it’s the ability of five freshman starters to begin to coalesce around one another for a stretch run that includes games against four ranked teams.
The Wildcats lack the overall talent level and guard savvy of past teams, and as such have dropped out of the top 25 for the first time since 2014. UK has also struggled shooting from the outside, but unlike West Virginia, has chosen to move away from the three-point threat to a driving, slashing style that better fits its personnel. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, are mired in a shooting slump, yet continue to pound away from the arc. It’s puzzled Huggins, who is trying to get a read on exactly what his team is at this point.
“Not very good right now,” Huggins said. “We haven’t played nearly as well as before. I don’t know what we are to be honest with you. We try to disrupt people. I think everybody goes through (poor shooting stretches). We have to get more shots up in practice, or they have to get in the practice facility on their own and get shots up.”
West Virginia took 75 shots against TCU, missing 50. It marked just the second time in the last 25 years that the Mountaineers took at least 75 shots and failed to shoot better than 34 percent. The machine-gun approach has worked exceptionally well when the threes are falling, like against Texas in an 86-51 blowout in which WVU made 12 threes and another dozen free throws in as many attempts. The reverse of that coin reared its head against Texas Christian, when the Mountaineers left with their tails tucked after an 82-73 setback that wasn’t that close.
There are times the team fails to run through its motion sets, with stagnation away from the ball and a tendency for a bout of “stickiness” in the passing game, i.e. lack of ball movement to create shots and driving and passing lanes. It’s created scoring droughts, like the one of nearly 10 minutes against TCU when the Mountaineers tallied only three free throws during a 23-3 run by the Horned Frogs.
Doing that again will prove fatal against another long, lengthy Kentucky team. The starting five has no player shorter than 6-foot-5 guard Hamidou Diallo, who is second on the team with 12.7 points to go with almost five rebounds per game. Backcourt mate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also averages more than a dozden points, while the three forwards run 6-7, 6-9 and 6-11. Power forward Kevin Knox (6-foot-9, 215 pounds) leads a very balanced-scoring squad at 14.6 points per game and 5.7 rebounds.
“They have great overall size and length. That’s the first thing that jumps out at you,” Huggins said. “I’m amazed that Cal can take guys and get them to play together the way they do and have them organized and organized the way they do in a short period of time.”
That’s head coach John Calipari, a close friend of Huggins who will be the guest speaker at the charity Fish Fry the Friday before the game. The two have faced each other 11 times, Huggins going 8-3 but losing the last two. The Mountaineers are 5-15 all-time against Kentucky, with the last three meetings taking place in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have not played in Morgantown since 1970, a 106-100 WVU win over the No. 3 ‘Cats. It was the third game ever held in the 47-year-old Coliseum.
“They are organized offensively and they run good sets and he gets them to defend,” Huggins said. “I have guys who have been here three years and they still don’t have a clue.”
Note: Huggins was asked about West Virginia’s RPI, and how aware the players were about their status in terms of potential NCAA Tournament seeding as the season progresses.
“They see it everyday,” he said. “All the RPIs are adjusted daily. The teams we have already played, win or lose, and the ones coming up. I sit down and explain the RPI to them at the beginning of the year and periodically through the year we talk about it. They are very aware of it.”