By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
March 28, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Boy, you sure can’t count out these Mountaineers now can you? Having traveled with this team for the last two weeks, I am getting a much better understanding of the confidence and the sense of purpose these young men have.
||Joe Mazzulla watches the end of West Virginia's 73-66 victory over No. 2-ranked Kentucky Saturday night at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.
They are focused, they are committed, and they are dedicated to bringing a national championship to Morgantown, W.Va.
Will it happen?
Who knows, but I wouldn’t bet against them.
“We’ve kind of rallied around each other in the locker room,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “These guys have kind of been on a mission to … I talked about them about trying to be special. If we can somehow find a way to win a couple more, that will be really special.”
The more you are around these guys the more you can sense something special going on. Before each tournament game, some of us get together at lunch and talk about the matchup, reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of both teams. At the end of our discussion we always take an informal poll of who will win the game. On Saturday afternoon, there were probably a half dozen of us sitting around the table and not a single person thought West Virginia would lose to Kentucky that night.
Some of the comments being tossed around the tossed salad yesterday afternoon … Kentucky is young and inexperienced and can get frustrated … West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone is unusual and difficult to figure out if a team hasn’t seen it … The Mountaineer players are mentally tough and nothing ever seems to bother them … For whatever reason, Bob Huggins has had great success during his coaching career against John Calipari (now 8-1 against Cal) … etc., etc., etc.
The confidence around the lunch table was in stark contrast to the vibe I was getting later that afternoon in the media room inside the Carrier Dome.
One prominent state journalist, who shall remain nameless, came up to me and said he thought the Mountaineers’ great run was going to end that night.
Why is that? I asked.
“Kentucky’s just too good,” he said.
He’s right. Kentucky has three NBA first-round draft picks, including the No. 1 overall player, John Wall, who looks to me like the second coming of Jason Kidd. The Wildcats have the biggest team in college basketball with a pair of twin towers in the starting lineup (DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson) and another Empire State Building (Daniel Orton) coming off the bench.
The Wildcats have won games every which way imaginable – buzzer-beaters, blowouts, slow-down, up-tempo … it didn’t matter.
But I reminded my friend that West Virginia didn’t have to win a seven-game series against Kentucky – the Mountaineers only needed to win once.
Kentucky coach John Calipari was certainly aware of that fact on Friday afternoon. His words proved prophetic.
“If a team plays another team best-of-five, the best team is going to win 98 percent of the time that series,” Calipari said. “When you’re playing one-and-done, one team comes in sluggish, one team doesn’t shoot it, one player on that other team goes nuts for 40; you’re done.”
Kentucky did play a little sluggish and the Wildcats certainly didn’t shoot it (4 of 32 from 3). Plus, West Virginia’s Joe Mazzulla went nuts, scoring 15 more than his season’s average.
Leading scorer Da’Sean Butler didn’t have a great shooting night, hitting only 4 of 15, but all four of those were 3s that came during a key first-half stretch when the Kentucky players were seeing how far up into the stands they could swat West Virginia’s shots.
The blocks didn’t bother the Mountaineers. They kept shooting.
West Virginia’s blocks bothered Kentucky. They kept missing.
“We went out there and played our game – we grinded it out,” said Butler. “We won and we knew we were going to win. Everybody up here (pointing to his teammates on the dais) knew we were going to win. It was a matter of how we were going to do it. They out-rebounded us, but we just did everything possible to win the game.”
ESPN’s Dick Vitale said the other night something to the effect that experience and team chemistry is great, but he would take talent over experience any day. “Give me someone who can shoot the rock, baby, and I’ll beat Hubert (Davis) and his experience every time,” Vitale deadpanned.
Well, experience beat talent on Saturday in the Carrier Dome.
“I think our offensive execution really wears teams down,” said Mazzulla. “We’re at our worst when we take forced shots and when we don’t execute. When we kind of force John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to kind of come off screens and to kind of chase us, I just think it wears them down and gets them tired.
“We didn’t give them easy looks at the basket either,” Mazzulla explained. “I thought the 1-3-1 was a lot more physical than we’ve played in the past.”
Huggins has been in 18 NCAA tournaments and he knows how fragile success can be. One bad break (reference Kenyon Martin), an unlucky bounce, a bad matchup or a bad whistle and you’re done.
Besides being a terrific basketball coach, Huggs is also a five-star story teller. He loves to tell the story about the time he was at a coaching clinic and Louisville’s Denny Crum was the guest speaker. Someone there asked Crum why his teams were so successful in the NCAA tournament.
Crum said the secret to his success was having good luck and not having bad luck. Then he pointed to Huggins and said that he was the unluckiest coach he had ever seen.
Calipari, too, has had his share of bad luck. If one of his pros at Memphis could have made a free throw, his team would have defeated Kansas in the 2008 national championship game.
Calipari also understands a little something about constructing championship-caliber teams and he believes Huggins may be on to something with this year’s team.
“You know, what he’s done to get that team and to play how they have to play to win …,” Calipari said. “He has them playing exactly how they have to play to win.”