I'It seems like it was just last year... because it was.
Joe Mazzulla guarding DeMarcus Cousins. Da'Sean Butler pounding his chest. John Flowers doing the John Wall dance. It's something Mountaineer fans will remember forever. No one thought these two would square off again, but here it is, just one scant year later. These are two dramatically different teams. West Virginia lost Butler, Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith. Kentucky lost their entire team. While West Virginia's returning players have matured and grown, Kentucky has simply reloaded with another class of talented freshmen led by Brandon Knight and Doran Lamb. While the stakes aren't as high as last year, there are no small games in the tournament. Here's what will be key this afternoon:
- Clamp down on the guards. Brandon Knight struggled in Kentucky's opening round victory against Princeton. He only hit one shot, but was it a doozy. His slash to the basket for the game-winning finger roll was the exact type of play the Mountaineers have struggled to guard all year. While Joe Mazzulla is WVU's defensive stopper, he's not remarkably quick and has trouble keeping people in front of him. If Knight can penetrate and get into the lane against the Mountaineers, he'll have success. WVU's frontline players are always slow to recover, and Knight's dashes to the basket could result in John Flowers, Kevin Jones or Deniz Kilicli heading to the bench with foul trouble early.
- Shots must drop. It's an old tune, but the 'Eers have been singing it all season: make a basket. They've struggled at times, and almost all of their losses feature dramatic stretches of offensive ineptitude. Against Clemson, the 'Eers threw their traditional sets out the window in the second half in favor of a more up-tempo style. That won't work against the athleticism that Kentucky employs. Instead, Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant must steady the ship and play methodic basketball and utilize the size of the Mountaineer frontcourt. Kevin Jones, John Flowers and Deniz Kilicli will absolutely have to contribute in the paint for the 'Eers to put enough points on the scoreboard to win this one.
- Who plays the role of Dalton Pepper? West Virginia's Thurday afternoon victory over Clemson was highlighted by three straight steals from the sophomore reserve which sealed the game for the 'Eers. I don't expect Pepper to be the star of the game again today, but it's important to stress that someone must step up. In order for WVU to be successful it has to be a total team victory. West Virginia just doesn't have the talent to have one or two guys go out and try and beat the Wildcats. Instead, some role player must step into the spotlight and have a big game. My money's on Casey Mitchell, who has the potential to get white hot at any second. He, Kilicli and Cam Thoroughman are all poised to have a breakout game this afternoon. If that happens, West Virginia could still be playing next week.
I'm off to Gene's, because if it takes a Chili Dog and a Pabst to beat the Wildcats, I'm going to do my part.