SCOUTING THE WILDCATS
While Kentucky is 3-2 after beating Kansas State 74-72 in the semifinals Friday, the team remains somewhat of an enigma. UK dropped a 111-103 decision to VMI in the season-opener, then was whipped 77-58 by No. 1 North Carolina in a game not as close as the score. It defeated Delaware State and Longwood in the tournament opening rounds before dominating K-State early via hot outside shooting and better offensive flow. But 31 turnovers for 26 points helped KSU stay in the game and challenge into the final 30 seconds. So it's difficult to gauge what type of performance one can expect in this game.
The main worries for West Virginia are a size deficiency – something that will become a pattern throughout the season – and the hot shooting of junior guard Jodie Meeks. Meeks ripped Kansas State for 24 first-half points with an eight of 10 effort from the floor. The 6-4, 208-pounder made four of five three-pointers, his lone miss coming on a desperation heave on an inbounds play as the shot clock expired. The 24 points (he finished with 37, twoof his career high set earlier this year versus VMI) are right on his season average, and through four games Meeks was shooting 42.1 percent. He could be susceptible to pressure with a 15 to 19 ratio of assists to turnovers, as he had nine in the semis.
Fellow guard Michael Porter is relatively inexperienced, having just 13 career starts. He averages just 4.3 points and 3.8 rebounds, but is continuing to develop for head coach Billy Gillispie. Ramon Harris, a 6-7, 218 pound Alaska native, scored a career high 15 points at North Carolina and appears ready to emerge as a major coring threat after averaging just 4.2 points per game in 25 starts last season. A mix of scorer and slasher, Harris can get to the line, create for teammates and handle himself defensively. This will be a difficult match-up for West Virginia, both size- and skill-wise.
Perry Stevenson, 6-9, 207 pounds, is UK's best defensive presence. He had 46 blocks last season, and has had three ands four blocks in games this season. His scoring is solely inside the three-point line – the junior has yet to take a three-pointer in his career – and until this season he had not gotten to the line as effectively as one would like. His averages of 7.8 points and 7.3 rebounds are solid, and his size is, again, an issue for the Mountaineers. Final starter Patrick Patterson started all 25 games as a freshman last year and is right on his career average of 16 points per game this season. At 6-9 and 235 pounds, Patterson posted a double-double against North Carolina with 19 points and a game-high 1 rebounds. He has great inside touch and can extend to outside the paint as needed. Defending the Huntington, W.Va. native – who controlled even K-State's tough frontline – will have to be a team effort for the Mountaineers.
When Patterson and Stevenson tire, Gillispie rolls in 6-10, 265-pound Josh Harrellson. The sophomore is playing approximately 10-12 minutes per game and averaging 4.5 points and 3.5 boards. He lacks the finished yet physical games of the starters, but is a great body to utilize of the bench. Chicago native LeAndre Liggins, 6-6, 202 pounds, is expected to be among Gillispie's prime additions. The newcomer is playing more than half the time and averaging five points and three rebounds. He can shoot and drive, and his all-around game allows the coaching staff to use him at a variety of slots. Fellow frosh Darius Miller, 6-7, 223 pounds, has one start. He isn't an outside threat, but is active around the rim. He won't outhandle a player like Da'Sean Butler, but is yet another big body off the pine.
Kentucky creates major mismatches for the Mountaineers. Routine lines of 6-9, 6-7, 6-7, etc. are a headache for any coach, let alone lines with considerable skill. Huggins must balance packing the inside with adequately defending the perimeter to limit Meeks. WVU will play UK as physically as any team has thus far. But it can't get into a wrestling match, especially in the paint.
|Sat. Nov. 29
10:30 p.m. EST
Orleans Arena in Las Vegas
WVU - 105
Kentucky - 101
West Virginia must create turnovers and turn those into points. It has to finish better than it did against Iowa and take intelligent shots out of good sets. This is a very winnable game, but not one where the Mountaineers can get a victory with the same bland effort and style it had in the latter half against Iowa. Ball movement will be paramount, and not missing 17 free throws in the game, let alone a half like WVU did in the semifinal contest, is imperative.
West Virginia will also have to battle a crowd that will be decidedly pro-Kentucky. The UK Wildcat fan base vastly outnumbered K-State's ‘Cats, and were much more vocal. Plus, some of State's fans might remain to cheer against their former coach in Huggins. It will make for what is essentially a road game, though the atmosphere certainly will not come close to matching UK's Rupp Arena. This will be a significant challenge, especially for the younger players. The talent level won't only not be even, it will favor Kentucky in the sense of pure player ratings. That's often misleading and doesn't make a team, but it does mean Truck Bryant won't be blowing by his counterparts, then getting to the rim without challenge.
Tonight's meeting is the 17th all-time between Kentucky and West Virginia. UK leads the series 12-4. It began in 1923-24; the Wildcats won the last meeting 80-66 at the Guardians Classic in 2005. They have won five in a row in the series. West Virginia has not won a game since 1959-60, one season after the Mountaineers finished as NCAA runner-up. WVU is 21-26 against current members of the SEC.
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West Virginia is now 2-2 all-time in games held in Nevada. Huggins' Kansas State team won the Las Vegas Classic in 2006. His Cincinnati team won it in 2001. He is 0-2 against Kentucky and 0-1 against its head coach, Billy Gillispie (Kansas State loss to Texas A&M in 2006-07). Gillispie has never faced West Virginia as a head coach.
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With a win, West Virginia can start 5-0 for the third time in 11 years.