CLEVELAND - Few give West Virginia more than a puncher's chance to upset undefeated Kentucky in their Midwest Regional semifinal Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena, but count on the Mountaineers to come out swinging with their full-court press. Can it work against John Calipari's stable of future NBA players?
"Why wouldn't it?" West Virginia guard Juwan Staten asked. "We've had success against everybody no matter what style or type of players they have. That's the only way we play, and it's just up to us to make it work."
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You have to admire the Mountaineers' brash approach against the Wildcats (36-0), but freshman guard Daxter Miles Jr. took it up a notch when he told a group of reporters, "Salute to them getting to 36-0, but tomorrow, they're going to be 36-1."
As if that weren't enough of a slap in the face, Miles suggested the Wildcats "don't play hard," and he added, "They should be more intimidated because they're the ones who have the high standard, and we're coming for them."
Those are mighty bold words, but West Virginia (25-9) has backed them up all season. The Mountaineers lead the nation with an average of 10.9 steals per game, and they have forced opponents to commit an average of 19.7 turnovers. Although they are shooting only 42.2 percent from the field compared to 46.6 percent by opponents, all the turnovers they force result in an average of 14.9 more shots per game for West Virginia.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said he consulted with former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey, whom he calls "the best teacher of the press maybe in the history of college basketball," before making the switch to the high-risk, high-reward system to suit his personnel.
Huggins was not as assertive as his players when asked if the press will create problems for the Wildcats. "It's going to be a long day for us if we can't," Huggins said. "I guess the risk is that sometimes we open up the floor. I think the reward is we turn people over and sometimes at an alarming rate."
The Mountaineers practice three hours a day to wear opponents out as one of the best-conditioned teams in the country. Guard Gary Browne said West Virginia's depth is a factor.
"I feel like we don't get tired because we have 13 guys," Browne said. "We might not have the best five guys, but we have the best 13."
Of course, Kentucky has played a two-platoon system much of the season and lately has used a nine-man rotation. Freshman point guard Tyler Ulis said, "We'll just try to treat it like we did with Louisville and Arkansas, just focus on taking care of the ball . . . We have nine guys rotating, two point guards, a lot of people who can handle the ball."