Brandon Priddy writes for The Smoking Musket, West Virginia’s SB Nation site, but he’s also a huge Kentucky and KSR fan. Brandon describes himself as a “weird hybrid WVU / UK fan” who grew up in West Virginia cheering for the Mountaineers but went to school at UK in Lexington, where he became part of the Big Blue Nation. He now cheers for both and this week, is understandably torn.
Hello there. You don’t know me but I know you. Heck I am you. Only I’m also them. See, I’m in a really weird spot this week. I grew up (and remain) a huge WVU fan, but I went to school in Lexington and also love my alma mater. What happened is they don’t have any architecture schools in West Virginia but I really wanted to be one so luckily the wonderful folks at Kentucky took me in. By my roots are my roots and I can’t quit you WVU. So here I sit with dual allegiances and for the 3rd time in 6 years the NCAA Tournament Committee has decided to make my life more difficult. Thanks guys. This wasn’t a problem for a decade then you come along and now you’ve made this a thing. Wonderful.
With all that said, I thought that I’d use my unique perspective to give the Big Blue faithful some insight on this Mountaineer squad.
You Will Hate WVU
You are going to hate West Virginia by midnight Thursday. Absolutely detest them. It pains me to say it but you will. They’re annoying and they do things nobody else does and if they were your team you’d love them but they are not so you will despise them. Imagine a team made up of 13 DeAndre Ligginses. That’s what West Virginia is.
You hate WVU cause they get all up in your business. They plop themselves down on your couch, put their feet up on your coffee table and scatter the candy dish. They put their arm around your wife and ask your daughter how old she is. They eat the last of your favorite bag of chips, ask to use your bathroom and are in there for a LOOOONG time. They make you uncomfortable, they make you squirm and at some point you find yourself counting the minutes until they are gone. Eventually you want to punch them. They want to frustrate you. They want to rattle you. They want to break you.
Learn the Name Devin Williams
Devin Williams is the best player on this Mountaineer squad you probably haven’t heard of. Or if you have you don’t know anything about him. Well he’s a 6’-9” 255 pound sophomore and he’s got massive shoulders and awesome rec specs. More importantly he’s the best post presence this Mountaineer team has. He’s strong and smart but is limited by his athleticism. He just doesn’t get off the floor that quickly and tends to get a lot of shots blocked, but he’s relentless. Think bigger and more athletic Chuck Hayes.
Juwan Staten is the name everyone knows, but Williams is the straw that stirs the WVU drink. It’s no coincidence that the Mountaineers are 7-2 in games where Williams goes for a double-double (losses to Iowa St. and Baylor) and 10-2 when you expand that to include games where he missed by 1 and had either 9 points or 9 boards. The numbers aside he’s an emotional catalyst as well. It’s no coincidence that WVU created its first real separation on Sunday night following Williams’ big-boy offensive rebound and putback with about 10 minutes left. That bucket started a run that increased the WVU lead from 1 to 9 and Maryland never seriously threatened again.
Final word on Williams — he’s especially deadly when he can hit his little 18 foot jumper. Once he draws the defense out he has the ability to drive and becomes much harder to handle, not to mention create the kind of driving lanes that have been the only kryptonite to Kentucky’s historically great defense. Keep your eye on Devin Williams.
The Way This Game Is Officiated Will Be Massively Important
I can’t emphasize this point enough. The Mountaineer press has been consistently great, but when they’re allowed to nudge and bump and slap — as they were against Maryland – it becomes a different animal. On the other side of the coin the Baylor Bears easily gave WVU the most trouble of anyone this season, and they shot 33, 34 and 35 free throws in their 3 tightly officiated games. The Terrapins by contrast shot only 13 on Sunday night.
See, the press has a cumulative effect. If you’re forced to play long physical stretches where you’re constantly bumped and chirped at and running and running and running the chances increase that you do something in a hurry and that something is a mistake. On the other hand if the referee’s whistle gives you constant respite and the opportunity to stop and gather yourself while a teammate shoots free throws, you’re much less likely to make the type of mistakes that are the lifeblood of the Mountaineer press.
If you’re a UK fan who’s looking for an early sign that things could be more interesting than you’d like, pay attention to that whistle. If there’s contact allowed early, it could be trouble. If WVU is in the double bonus by the 8 minute mark and the Cats are calmly and confidently extending that lead with their exceptional foul shooting, probably no showers for Matt Jones.
WVU Can Give Kentucky Real Problems On The Offensive Glass
Kentucky doesn’t have many warts, but a surprising one is the ability of their opponents to crash the offensive glass. The Wildcats are currently 129th in opponent offensive rebounding percentage at 28%. Conversely WVU is 2nd nationally in offensive rebounds per game with 14.3 and 7th in percentage at 38.8%. One of the keys to that success is Jonathan Holton, an athletic forward who plays larger than his 6’-7” size. He’s exceptionally active and always around the ball, but has also fought foul trouble all season, picking up at least 4 fouls 15 different times and fouling out 6 of those (including Friday’s win over Buffalo). If he can stay in the game he’s a pesky presence on the glass and could make a small living cleaning up misses.
If WVU Can’t Shoot (Reasonably) Well From 3 They Are Dead
West Virginia’s biggest liability is their struggle in halfcourt offense. They’re not an exceptional passing team and when Juwan Staten isn’t driving, their offense can fall into a pattern of passing around the perimeter and chucking a 3. Not a terribly effective strategy when you’re 273rd nationally in 3 point percentage at 32%. Having said that their shooting has improved as they’ve surged for their last 9 games, going 6-3 while hitting 37.8% from beyond the arc.
A closer look at the numbers reveals a Mendoza line of sorts for the Mountaineers. They’re 0-3 over that stretch when shooting 24 or more 3s and 6-0 when shooting 21 or fewer. Certainly that could simply be the result of end-of-game desperation, but if you see WVU leaning too heavily on the trey early, it’s probably a sign that things aren’t going their way.
(Bonus hint: Jonathan Holton has a season-long obsession with hoisting 3s from the wing, which is maddening when you consider his 21.3% shooting clip. But he hit one against Maryland and also at Kansas in a March 3rd game WVU should have won. If he hits one of those against the Cats it’s a sign the rims are looking big for the Mountaineers.)
Why You Should Love Bob Huggins
He has the driest sense of humor in the business, the least fashion sense, and as friend of KSR Mark Titus so aptly put in his column this week, “has probably apologized a grand total of zero times in his life.” Also much like Cal he’s one of the few coaches willing to point out the hypocrisy of the NCAA even while sitting in the belly of the beast, as he did in his press conference on Saturday when addressing WVU’s late start time:
“You’ve got all these games to cram on TV, and it’s going to happen,” said Huggins, in his 33rd season as a head coach and on his 21st trip to the NCAA Tournament. “But it just tickles me to death that we’re doing this for the student-athletes. It’s all for the betterment of the student-athletes.”
If that’s not enough he took a nice swipe at Seth Davis in his weekly radio show last Monday when told Davis (and virtually everybody else with a microphone and a bracket) had picked Buffalo to beat WVU. “If I need to know about the Duke intramural team I’ll ask Seth Davis.”
I know he’s the guy on the opposing sidelines, but you have to love the Huggy Bear.
Why You Should Fear Bob Huggins
Bob Huggins is a smarter basketball coach than John Calipari. I say this not as a Forde/Goodman-esque troll, but as someone who thinks the world of Cal and feels he gets nowhere near the credit he deserves for his in-game work (as evidenced by his outstanding record in close games during his time in Lexington).
Calipari is a great coach, but Huggins is just a really smart dude – he was a two-time Academic All American player and graduated magna cum laude from WVU. More importantly he’s an exceptional basketball mind who is able to quickly incorporate new ideas to make his team better. That 1-3-1 press that still gives UK fans nightmares? Huggins added it to the WVU arsenal in 2008 on the advice of guard Joe Mazzula who’d seen it work very effectively under former coach John Beilein the years before. This new nonstop press that has defined his Mountaineer’s 2014-15 campaign? He came up with it a week or so into practice when he saw the amount and type of bodies he could throw at people.
Huggins lost the 3 leading scorers off his team last year, completely changed his squad’s identity and has led them to a 25-8 record and the Sweet 16 playing a style he’s never coached in his 30 year career. That’s impressive.
I don’t think there’s any magic formula for beating UK but I do think there are chinks in the armor. Huggins is a master tactician and master motivator — if UK can be challenged, he’ll find a way to do it.
Do Not Underestimate This Mountaineer Team
WVU’s best chance to pull an upset isn’t that they fit “the blueprint to beat UK” or any of those silly things people say to sound smart. In fact it’s the exact opposite. WVU doesn’t have a “blueprint.” In fact on the hardwood they seem to subscribe to the Joker’s theory of existence in The Dark Knight. To paraphrase: “Arkansas has a plan……Florida has a plan……..Cincinnati has a plan…….they’re schemers. WVU just…..does things.”
WVU is an agent of chaos. They create it and thrive in it better than any team in America. West Virginia is what Arkansas thinks they are. I mean, they even press after misses — who DOES that?
The irony is that in a lot of ways the press plays to the Mountaineer’s weaknesses. It creates fouls, they’re a bad foul shooting team. It creates fast break opportunities, but they’re not very good in transition (there were some laughably bad lob attempts against Buffalo). But its chaos and more importantly it’s THEIR chaos. They live in it, they thrive in it. And the rub with chaos is that you never know what will happen. Who will come unglued and wilt in the moment. Who will throw the errant pass that ignites the run and ignites the team and sews the seeds of doubt………and then you’re down 6 with 4 to play and it’s a ballgame.
Inherent in the WVU press is the desire to gamble, and their gamble is that the chaos will get to you before it gets to them. We have a running joke over at the Smoking Musket of the “frustration event horizon.” It’s that moment in every WVU win when the other team breaks and spirals into oblivion. When they finally tire out, their heads sag and they look to their bench for an answer that’s not there. They throw a pass into the 3rd row, they snap off an unnecessary elbow – they are no longer playing their game.
I don’t think WVU will do that to Kentucky but they COULD do it to Kentucky. What I took from the Cincinnati game wasn’t so much that they provided any blueprint. Instead I took away that you can get to Kentucky – even if just for a second. That Aaron Harrison technical was the slightest of fissures but it was there. Cincinnati was only unable to exploit it because a) they’re not that good and b) they’re not used to that level of intensity. Well that is where WVU lives and that is what WVU wants. Given the right set of circumstances things could go a little wrong for UK and then go a lot wrong. I don’t expect it to happen but it could happen and that’s what makes this game so troublesome for the Cats.
Having said all that I think UK is a tough matchup for WVU. They pass the ball exceptionally well, have a reliable post presence in Towns to get buckets if things get hairy and a guard in Ulis who the good Lord seems to have put on this earth to break a press (I’m so excited for this matchup). Not to mention the type of wing threats in Aaron and Booker (if he wakes up) that have given WVU fits all season (look at the stat lines of Baylor’s Royce O’Neale). A lot of things will have to go wrong for Kentucky and a lot of things will have to go right for WVU. I just don’t see that happening.
I’ll leave you with a few resources if you want to read up and study the Mountaineers. First I’d direct you to the blog where I write, the SmokingMusket.com. But for me the bar none best source of WVU info and analysis is beat writer Mike Casazza’s blog.
As far as Twitter feeds I’d point you to
- @abpriddy (me)
- @MKirchner12 (our head basketball fella at the Musket)
Hope this gave you some insight and I hope we can still be friends on Saturday morning.