SYRACUSE - There's only one way the NCAA Tournament East Regional final between top seed Kentucky and second-seeded West Virginia can go down Saturday night in the Carrier Dome, and that's hard. As hard as an MMA battle in the octagon. As hard as Foreman pinning Ali on the ropes and firing away.
The Mountaineers (30-6) are a battle-tested Big East bunch, but they've never faced a team with the size of the Wildcats (35-2), who have 11 players 6-6 or taller. The biggest and toughest to stop is 6-11, 270-pound freshman center DeMarcus Cousins, who is likely to be doing his banging in the NBA next season.
When someone told Cousins that West Virginia has three big men who can come off the bench for the purpose of giving fouls against him, he just smiled and said, "I mean, bring 'em."
Cousins was making faces Thursday during the Wildcats' win over Cornell because he felt the Big Red was allowed to play physically and the Wildcats were being called for touch fouls against the poor little Ivy Leaguers. It's been a struggle all season for him to control his reaction to the officiating, but he's done it well enough that Kentucky coach John Calipari was able to leave him in against Cornell with four fouls and keep feeding him on offense down the stretch.
"I thought it was kind of crazy," Cousins said of the officiating. "You're playing the elephant-mouse game. You just have to accept it. I don't get mad at the player. I get mad at the ref because they know what's going on, and they let it happen."
Four of West Virginia's starters stand at least 6-7, but they don't have quite the width Kentucky does in the paint. Still, a physical game favors the Mountaineers because they're used to hand-to-hand combat for rebounds and grinding out wins with defense. Their three top scorers, Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones, all have the ability to work in traffic.
"They are going to try to slow it down," Kentucky freshman point guard John Wall said. "They're a great half-court team, and they like to run their sets. We just have to get them out of their comfort zone."
Kentucky can do that by cranking up its transition game and opening the floor to score easy baskets. That's when the Wildcats are at their best and can break games open in an eyeblink. It begins with the shocking quickness and speed of Wall, who many have pegged as the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft.
Coach Bob Huggins uses the 6-9 Ebanks to defend smaller players because of his length and agility. "I'm guarding John Wall," Ebanks said, "and I'm looking forward to it. He's one of the best players in college basketball right now, so it should be fun. I'm going to try to limit his touches, stay in his face a lot and try to make him make tough decisions.'' There will be bruises.