Thoughts on UK-West Virginia

My column in tomorrow’s paper (print edition only) deals with the bigger picture of UK’s Elite Eight loss to West Virginia tonight, and how fast things can turn from “Look how quick Calipari brought them back” to “Look how much talent he had and still didn’t reach a Final Four.” So I won’t overlap myself that way. The column is bigger picture. This blog will be more narrow. It will be about the game itself.
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Huggins, WVU make the right moves

On Friday, when asked about Kentucky’s talented freshmen, West Virginia players didn’t talk so much about their great athleticism or talent. Instead, they talked about their minds.

They said they’d noticed that when DeMarcus Cousins went long stretches without touching the ball, he seemed to get mentally removed from the game. They said that when John Wall’s confidence starts to sag, the rest of the team’s seems to wilt.

Wise observations. Because on Saturday night, West Virginia beat Kentucky mentally as well as physically. The Mountaineers won 73-66 because of 3-point shooting and a 1-3-1 zone. But one game after Kentucky beat Cornell in a game that everyone billed as brains vs. brawn, UK lost to West Virginia because it got out-smarted.

Give Bob Huggins credit for a good game plan. But give him even more credit for having good intuition. He made two on-the-fly decisions in the game that turned the tide. The first came when West Virginia could get nothing going offensively in the lane. CBS’s Dick Enberg, in fact, made a near-poetic observation about Kentucky’s interior defense. During the telecast, he said, “It’s like trying to play your way through barbed wire.”

So Huggins, in a timeout, called a set play for Da’Sean Butler and he hit a three. Let him take it from there.

“During the time-out, actually Larry (Harrison) wanted to run the set for Da’Sean,’ Huggins said. “And he looked at Da and said, ‘We need you to make a shot.’ Da said, ‘I got it.’ And so he came, he made that shot. And then I wanted to run the set for K.J. (Kevin Jones). We ran a set for K.J. and he made a three. And we ran the same thing for Da and he made another three. And then we ran the same thing for K.J. again and he really got a good look. They ran at him, and I think he missed a 10- or 12-footer.”

Instead of coming down and running an offensive pattern, Huggins went to specific play calls to get the ball into the hands of specific shooters with open looks.

“We had to run sets because we couldn’t get anything at the rim,” Huggins said.

Not only did it serve the purpose of getting West Virginia some open looks, but calling a player’s number gives confidence to the guys you’re running the plays for. And it worked. The Mountaineers started making threes like they were out of their minds, which, in a way, they were.

Meanwhile Kentucky was getting frustrated. Even though it held West Virginia without a field goal for nearly seven minutes, it could not capitalize because it could not get good looks, and began to turn the ball over. The Wildcats turned it over eight times in a span of 13 possessions

And this is where Huggins’ other on-the-fly decision came into play. He started in man-to-man, then went to a 1-3-1 zone, and was going to do a lot of switching, even into a matchup 2-3 zone. Instead, when he felt like the 1-3-1 was working, he called an audible and stayed in it. And it turned out to be a mystery for UK.

“We were going to ride that as long as we could ride it,” Huggins said. “We almost changed to playing match-up. But I said let’s give it another — we need to get a stop when they were making a run. And we were very fortunate to get a stop. So we stayed with it.”

Calipari, meanwhile, had no answers. He went to his bench often enough, but his team was on its heels and he never could find a way to get it to steady itself.

“The 1-3-1 bothered us. We tried different things and it bothered us more than I thought it would,” Calipari said. “. . . We were trying to go inside, but when you’re missing — it gets a little demoralizing when you miss the shots that we missed. We had worked prior to even Cornell, because Cornell played the 1-3-1, they just weren’t quite as big. We ran a little offense and we could not get into it today. So I just shifted and said let’s go four out and put DeMarcus inside and we’ll go around him and we played a little bit better.”

But they never really got it where it needed to be, which was in Cousins’ hands. They settled for three after three, missing 20 in a row, when they could have been at least staying close and in better position to make a run, had they gotten the ball inside.

The reason they couldn’t get it in was probably the most unlikely Huggins move of all. Raise your hand if you had 6-2 West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla as the defensive presence that would bother Cousins the most. Mazzula played the back line of the West Virginia 1-3-1 and pestered Cousins from below, hounding him, slapping down on the ball, not letting him get position.

“It was pretty tough,” Wall said. “He was holding on pretty tough to DeMarcus. We tried to lob the ball to him. We couldn’t get it to him. We don’t know what he was doing down there.”

At one point Mazzulla said Cousins looked at him in exasperation, and Mazzulla said “You’re going to have to punch me in the face to get me off you.”

If the West Virginia zone was annoying, the Mountaineers’ offense was punishing. A physical team defensively, the Mountaineers are also physical on offense. You don’t often realize the toll until you start to see teams wear down against the number of screens and cuts they’re forced to deal with — or in Kentucky’s case, not deal with. The Wildcats got caught chasing West Virginia defensively, and the Mountaineers spread the court and took advantage.

They had 12 field goals in the second half. Seven were layups. It’s tough to come back when a team gets that many point-blank shots.

“What hurt us when we made our run and started playing a little bit better is we gave up layups in their little shuffle cuts,” Calipari said. “We kept coming to each timeout and said we have to go under. We were chasing guys. They got those layups. Bobby just had those guys grind it, grind it, grind it and they were getting lay-ups. . . . We’re a team that doesn’t give up many layups. We gave up a bunch today.”

Calipari said he didn’t think his team got rattled. It looked rattled. Wall acknowledged, “We got rattled for a minute.”

The UK coach made this point, and it’s a fair one. As bad as his team played, as bad as it shot (4-for-32 from 3-point range), it still got close enough to have a shot in the final minute.

“Because the way we played, the way they played compared to the way we played it should have been 20,” he said.

But the Wildcats also didn’t help themselves. Wall and Cousins had five turnovers each. West Virginia scored 19 points off turnovers. The Wildcats also missed 13 free throws. In a second half in which they were outscored by only five, UK missed 12 free throws.

Again, it was mental. UK players weren’t catching and shooting. They were hesitating. They didn’t look like they believed they were going to m
ake it when it left their hands. Freshman Eric Bledsoe was 0-of-5 from three-point range, and that’s one thing. But he was only 1-for-6 from the line. Wall was 4-for-8 from the line. The guards themselves held the margin of victory in their hands, unguarded.

You hate to say that a team shrank from the moment. But it looks like it. Give West Virginia, though, the credit for rising to the moment, and knocking UK back with savvy, sound play.

In the end, the best analysis is supplied by the players. We all look at stats and even tape of games and decide what we think will happen, but there’s an instinct, a feel for the game that only players can have. You can draw up all the strategies for stopping players, but West Virginia had a kind of playground feel for Cousins. Teams tried to trash-talk him to make him get overheated and flame out all season. Turns out, you don’t need to trash-talk him. You just need to take away the ball. It sucked the oxygen from his game.

All of Kentucky’s weaknesses, these things the Wildcats had masked all season — turnovers, free-throws, three-point weakness — were laid bare by a very good team Saturday night.

Certainly, West Virginia was the best team by far UK had seen this season. In fact, it was not to the Wildcats’ benefit that they really hadn’t seen a team this tough and long and athletic all season. UK had played beyond its years for most of the season, even in pressure situations. It had played well enough to make you think it could overcome even the toughest pressure cooker.

But pressure got the best of the Wildcats tonight. Their youth showed.

“I don’t want to have excuses. They outplayed us,” Calipari said. “But I think there were times that the inexperience, you know, hurt us.” Still, Calipari quickly added, “Let me tell you, it also got us to where we are today with 35 wins. I mean, that same youth.”

UK’s players came away saying they felt like West Virginia outworked them. The Wildcats got worked over on the sidelines, too. It happens. I saw it happen a year ago when Tom Izzo did a number on Rick Pitino.

Calipari had no answer for Huggins’ zone. He could not get his team refocused after West Virginia went on a run. And he could not make them forget their frustration with the officiating.

It was, pretty much, the perfect recipe for a Kentucky defeat. Credit Huggins for bringing all the right ingredients.

That’s why his players were the ones on the postgame podium celebrating a trip to the Final Four by doing the John Wall dance, and why for UK fans, that’s the only dance they’re left with.

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