Kentucky Seeking Revenge
TAMPA – Kentucky basketball fans have long memories and the thought of Joe Mazzulla driving through their Wildcats and into last year’s Final Four won’t soon be forgotten in the Bluegrass State.
For sure Mazzulla appreciates the experience he had against Kentucky in Syracuse, N.Y., last spring, but as far as sticking a dagger in the hearts of Wildcat fans, that’s not something he really thinks much about.
“Obviously last year was a great experience, but that was last year,” Mazzulla said. “It’s a much different game this year and we’re a different team, they’re a different team, so it may not be the same result and we may not go about trying to win the game the same way. We’re just going to focus on what we have to do to try and win tomorrow.”
In last year’s game against a Kentucky team that had a record five players taken in the first round of the NBA draft, West Virginia went to its 1-3-1 zone defense and that caused to the Wildcats to miss 28 3-point field goal attempts.
“Last year when they went 4 for 32 a lot of their shots were contested or under duress from the 1-3-1,” Mazzulla said. “We got them off the 3-point line and probably a few steps back. That’s just what we’ve got to do tomorrow. We can’t let them get standstill shots and we can’t let them set their feet. If we can make them rush their 3-pointers, and if we can get a hand in their face, then hopefully it’ll be the same result.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins admitted the plan last year was to play more man-to-man, but the Wildcats have always been so effective at attacking teams with dribble drives to the basket that it forced Huggins to shift tactics on the fly.
“We thought we could do a better job man to man a year ago than what we did,” said Huggins. “We’d put Devin (Ebanks) on a lot of really good players, and because he was so long, he bothered people. John Wall went by him a couple times and he came over to me and said, ‘Coach, that cat is fast. I’m trying, I’m trying, I’m trying.’ He couldn’t stay in front of him so we had to do something else. We didn’t go in planning on playing 1-3-1 as much as we did, but you’re just trying to win.”
Kentucky (26-8) is a much improved 3-point shooting team this year, hitting seven or more 3s in a game 22 times this year (the Wildcats hit five 3s in Thursday’s 59-57 win over Princeton). Kentucky making some 3-point shots on Saturday could be the antidote to the 1-3-1 zone the Mountaineers have been using so effectively lately at the end of games.
“This is a better shooting team,” said Kentucky guard Deandre Liggins. “We do not have that one big guy, but we do it as a unit.”
Kentucky’s roster has almost completely turned over once again, with the bulk of the Wildcats’ production coming from a freshman class considered the best in the country.
“We’re an inexperienced team,” admitted Kentucky coach John Calipari. “My veteran players were not significant guys of a year ago. They’ve taken on new roles. The freshmen have been on a steady climb.”
Kentucky’s freshman trio - guards Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones - are the team’s top three scorers with junior guard Darius Miller also averaging double figures.
Miller led Kentucky with 17 points against Princeton, while 6-foot-10 junior forward Josh Harellson contributed 15 points and 10 rebounds. Miller and Liggins were the only returning players to get into the West Virginia game last year; Miller was 0 for 6 from the floor, including an 0-for-4 showing from behind the 3-point arc while Liggins finished with 7 points.
“We missed a lot of shots last year when we played them,” remembered Liggins. “It was devastating. They got easy layups, and we’re not going to allow that this year.”
“We really didn’t play well at all,” added Harrellson, who had a courtside view of the game from the bench. “They played the best game they could play, and got the win.”
For whatever reason, Bob Huggins’ teams have fared well against John Calipari’s teams in the past – and Huggins is at a loss for a reason why.
“If you would go back and look at the games … I mean we’ve just been lucky,” said Huggins. “We’ve made some shots. We beat them in Memphis one time, I think it was a tie score, and we take a shot at the end of the shot clock and we fortunately get the rebound.
“My guy starts dribbling it out because he thinks we’re ahead and Cal’s guy jumps over and shuts him off to keep him from dribbling the ball back out to the top of the key so there’s nobody between him and the basket and he goes and lays it in,” said Huggins.
Huggins said the recipe for another victory on Saturday is simple – West Virginia must stick to its principles.
“We’ve got to be very fundamentally sound,” he said. “For being as non-athletic as this group is, they’ve done a really good job. But we can’t get away from the fundamental things that we have to do defensively.”
The same goes for offense.
“We have to use screens and we have to have good spacing,” Huggins said. “We have to do the things good basketball teams do and we can’t rely on end of the clock.
“A year ago we gave the ball to Da’Sean (Butler) at the end of the clock and Da’Sean got something pretty good for us. We don’t have anybody like that so it’s got to come out of offense. It’s got to come out of what we do. We rely so much on whatever you want to call it – it’s motion and it’s passing game – and passing game means you pass the ball more than you dribble the ball. Those are the kind of people we have right now.”
Mazzulla, the one guy who really benefitted from Huggins’ fundamental approach against Kentucky last year, believes the Mountaineers must play another poised, under-control game against the talented Wildcats if they have any hope of pulling off another upset victory.
“If we can get them spread and if we can get them kind of chasing us, then obviously we’ll be able to dribble penetrate and either finish or kick it out for shots,” Mazzulla said. “It’s pretty much the same thing this year.”
Tipoff is set for 12:15 with CBS televising the game nationally.
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