Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Kentucky Wildcats

Preview: West Virginia Mountaineers – Kentucky Wildcats


WVU and Kentucky step out of conference for the Big 12 SEC challenge, and although it interrupts the conference season, provides both teams (and many of the foes in the event) with a chance for another RPI-building win.

SCOUTING THE WILDCATS

There’s young. Then there’s Kentucky. Granted, the Cats are loaded with highly-rated recruits, but a starting five of all freshmen? Just one of those, forward Hamidou Diallo, is of the redshirt variety, while the others are all in their first year of play. Only Mississippi Valley State (386) and Pittsburgh (648) return fewer minutes from last season than the Wildcats (890).

Without great talent, any such lineup would probably be fighting to keep its head above water, not contending for a Top 25 ranking and a good seed in the NCAA Tournament, but that’s just what John Calipari’s squad is doing.

Diallo leads a very balanced starting five that can all score and rebound. The six-foot, five inch 200-pound guard averages 12.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, and pairs in the backcourt with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (6-6, 180 lbs.) who adds 12.1 points and 3.7 boards to the game. Neither is a stellar passer, but both stress defenses with their ability to get to the rim and score over shorter defenders — a challenge that WVU will have to rise to.

On the front line, Kevin Knox (6-9, 215 lbs.) leads the team with 14.6 and 5.7 rebounds per game, but those are narrow margins over the rest of the squad.  PJ Washington (6-7, 235 lbs.) is right behind with 11.3 points and 5.2 boards, while Nick Richards (6-11 240 lbs.) is a mobile stalwart inside, adding 6.8 points and 5.4 boards.  With all that length, UK is also good at altering shots — it has outright rejected 107 this year and changed many more. Backups Wenyen Gabriel (So., 6-9, 205 lbs.) and Sacha Killeya-Jones (So., 6-10, 205 lbs.) add even more length and shot-blocking prowess, and can make it very difficult to get shots close to the hoop.

With all this talent, Kentucky might be expected to have fewer losses, but that’s very unreasonable, given the lack of experience on the roster. UK’s halfcourt offense can stagnate with too much one-on-one action and some ill-advised shot attempts. Individual freedom isn’t something Calipari is going to stifle, however, given his recruiting selling point of UK as an NBA feeder, which demands perimeter shooting and ballhandling designed to defeat man-to-man defenses.

It’s not like this is a killer for the Cats, though. With all the hoopla about falling out of the Top 25 and “suffering” five losses to date, UK is in good shape. It won’t cruise easily to an SEC title as it has often done in the past, but it could win it. And it remains a very tough out for any team that can’t roll out a deep lineup that can match up with its nine players who stand 6-5 or taller.

GAME OUTLOOK

As opposed to West Virginia’s search for a rotation and better chemistry, the Wildcats have been employing a more stable rotation of late.

West Virginia (16-4 / 5-3) vs. UK (15-5 / 5-3)  Sat Jan 27   7:00 PM ET
WVU Coliseum Morgantown, WV Series: UK 15-5
RPI: WVU – 24  UK- 18 TV: ESPN Sirius/XM:  81 / 81
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Backups Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones have been the most dependable players, along with the starters, and thus that group is targeted for the most minutes. Allowing for a few special instances, head coach John Calipari has settled on a set rotation with defined minutes and roles for his very young lineup. The hope there is to lessen the in-and-out of substitutions that often occurs with young players (something WVU fans are very familiar with) and to provide intervals where they can be coached on the bench, then returned to action.

That’s all good in theory, but it’s not a magic wand. West Virginia, employing Huggins usual short hook when mistakes are repeated or mental play isn’t up to snuff, won 15 consecutive games in over a two-month span. The clash of styles will be interesting to watch — and will either coach sub in to try to take advantage of specific match-ups?

One thing both coaches do agree on is their teams’ lack of passing. For Kentucky, though, it’s a little less of an issue, as UK is able to score by virtue of its height and length advantages . The Cats, even when playing too much individual ball, are often able to get to the rim for shots, and their offensive rebounding and second chance points, again powered by those physical edges, let them put up 77 points per game. Can West Virginia disrupt Kentucky’s offense enough to knock that total down by about 10 points? On offense, can WVU run its sets efficiently enough to move the defense and get open looks?  Getting to the hoop is just half the problem – WVU will face a height disadvantage at most every position, and will have to score over defenders if UK works to guard throughout the shot clock.

Over the past few years, West Virginia has had its most difficulty playing against teams with a lot of span and height — like Kentucky. However, this year the Mountaineers have dispatched both Baylor and Texas — teams that deploy a number of players who can eat up space and out-reach foes. If nothing else, WVU shouldn’t be fazed by facing yet another lineup that sends waves of NBA-sized players onto the court.

PRESS POINTS

While the Big 12 has never lost the challenge with the SEC (the league has won three series and tied last year), the Mountaineers haven’t contributed a lot. West Virginia is just 1-3 in the four years of the event, with last year’s win over Texas A&M breaking a three-year schneid.

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How will WVU guard Daxter Miles handle this game? The last time the two teams faced each other, Miles predicted a WVU win over the undefeated Cats in the NCAA Tournament. Although that comment wasn’t made boastfully, or with any disrespect to Kentucky, many media outlets irresponsibly played it up that way. The result was that Miles received some unfair jabs and snide comments after West Virginia laid a 78-39 egg. It’s important for Miles not to get caught up in that, or to try to “make up” for that showing, in this contest.

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College Game Day has not been kind to WVU. The Mountaineers lost in their only previous appearance on the basketball version of the event, and also dropped both of the home football games following its appearance on the Mountaineer campus. (WVU also lost to TCU in football when the Frogs hosted it this year.)

Kentucky is 5-10 all time in basketball Game Day appearances.

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 Kentucky has committed 282 turnovers this year while forcing just 249 from its opponents.