Hello friends. We're still friends, aren't we? Don't hate me because I went to the University of Kentucky - hate the state of West Virginia because they don't have an architecture school. I know this is a tough week but we can still be pals, can't we? I mean, I gave you the Mountaineer Retweet. I've written thousands of words read by literally DOZENS of people. Doesn't that count for something?
How about this. I'll make my liability an advantage. I'll distribute a little of the knowledge I've gained watching this Kentucky Wildcats team all year and give you the inside skinny. Not the garbage national writers will shovel at you, but a real fan's perspective on this Kentucky team.
#5 Andrew Harrison : 6'-6" 210 lbs : PG
First off ignore a lot of the negative things you've heard about Andrew Harrison. He struggled early in the year and it became en vogue to suggest backup point guard Tyler Ulis should take the reins (we'll get to him later) but the fact is for the last month Andrew has been a stone cold killer. After being snubbed for All-SEC honors, he went out and nearly won the award for SEC Tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Not known for his shooting, he's been very accurate from 3 over the last 10 games, going 14-29. Despite that clip he's at his best when driving the lane, where he can draw the defense and dish or use his size to get to the rim himself to score or draw contact. When he does have to finish at the FT line he shoots 77.7%.
In many ways as Harrison goes so goes Kentucky and his resurgence over the past month has UK peaking, so stopping him could be step 1 in stunning the Cats. Andrew struggled against Louisville early in the season where he struggled to stay in front of the quick Chris Jones. Obviously Juwan Staten could give him similar problems and frustration on the defensive end could bleed over into his offense - this could be one of the few areas where WVU could exploit a matchup.
#2 Aaron Harrison : 6'-6" 212 lbs : SG
You may remember Aaron as the cold-blooded closer from last season when he hit huge 3-pointers in not 1 but 3 consecutive NCAA tournament games to get Kentucky to the championship game. This year he's continued to be a reliable outside threat but much like his brother has improved his ability to get to the rim. He's not a spectacular 3-point shooter at just 31%, but he's a guy who relishes the big shot and specializes in throwing daggers.
Aaron should be a guy WVU fans are afraid of. Much like Baylor's Royce O'Neale, he's an athletic wing who can shoot and slash. When the Mountaineers do throw the 1-3-1 at Kentucky, expect Aaron to be the guy they turn to to shut it down.
Normally unflappable, he showed a bit of a propensity to get taken out of his game against Cincinnati last week. As emotions were running high it was Aaron who bumped a Bearcat during a dead ball and earned a technical. Don't think WVU didn't notice that and that Gary Browne and Daxter Miles don't want to make him repeat his mistake.
#12 Karl-Anthony Towns : 6'-11" 250 lbs : PF
Here's where things get scary and downright difficult for the Mountaineers. They have no answer for Towns. None. He's become a polished post presence and the guy the Cats feed the ball when the crowd is going bonkers, the opponent is surging and they just need a bucket. When UK was down 9 at Georgia with 9 minutes left, Towns scored 9 of Kentucky's next 17, pulling the Cats in front for good and stymieing any hope UGA had of pulling the upset.
He's simply a solid reliable presence in the middle, playing with a poise that belies his freshman age. He's enormous at 250 lbs, a wide body that he knows how to use to get to the rim. He averages only 10 PPG on the season but has bumped that to 12.9 over the last 10 games - including matching or surpassing his career high 3 times in that stretch.
His battle for rebounds with WVU's Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton will be key to the game's outcome and when fouls are called here will be of enormous importance. Towns' biggest weakness is probably his propensity to get foul trouble - it made him a near non-factor in the SEC Tournament.
That's the bad news about Towns, the worse news is that he's a very good interior passer, regularly finding Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles for easy dunks and if that's not enough, he's an exceptional free throw shooter, making an astounding 90% of his free throws in the last 10 games. WVU's best chance at guarding him will be Devin Williams, but it will be the tallest order he's faced all season and there's a real chance he gets into foul trouble.
#15 Willie Cauley-Stein : 7'-1 240 lbs : F
Willie Cauley-Stein is an absolute physical freak. His numbers don't pop off the page (9.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG) but his athleticism allows UK to do things on defense that nobody else can do. They constantly switch on screens because Cauley-Stein can amazingly stay in front of most guards. His footwork is impressive and he fouls very little for what he's asked to do. Nobody in America is longer or possesses the ability to get to a shot faster to block it.
More than just a lock-down defender, Willie is an emotional catalyst for UK on both ends of the floor. On the defensive end his blocks and disdainful post-rejection stare-downs are fan favorites. On the offensive end his ability to throw down thunderous dunks on fast breaks bring the house down while breaking an opponent's will. When the Cats were struggling in Gainesville, it was Cauley-Stein's fast-break flush and foul that gave the Cats a lead in a tight game that they never relinquished. Against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament Final I saw his insanely high flush off a lob that sent Dick Vitale into hysterics and set an early tone for the impending route.
And against Cincinnati, Willie absolutely killed a man.
Photo credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
If WVU has any chance of winning, they simply can't let Willie land one of these death blows.
All that said, while Cauley-Stein's athleticism is breathtaking but he has also shown himself to be disinterested at times, sleepwalking through long stretches of games. That he has accumulated his substantial collection of accolades (first team All-America, First team All-SEC, SEC Defensive POY, SEC Tournament Outstanding Player) all while only going hard about 60% of the time gives you an indication as to the depth of his talent.
Put simply nobody can effect a basketball game like Willie Cauley-Stein and if he gets going against the Mountaineers they don't really have an answer for him - nobody does.
#41 Trey Lyles : 6'-10" 235 lbs : F
In many ways Lyles is the forgotten man on this UK roster. He missed a stretch of 3 games in February due to illness and even before then hadn't scored more than 10 points in a game since November. He got off to a sluggish start after his return on February 10th against LSU, but has hit his stride over the past month, averaging 10.9 a game. More than that he's solidified his spot in the top rotation for UK as Calipari has shortened the bench.
Lyles is a challenge to guard because of his size and his smooth shooting touch. In a world where everyone is a 3 point specialist or a dunker, Lyles has made a nice living off of drives and mid-range jump shots. His shot coming off a screen is surprisingly smooth for his size. Because of the attention Towns and Cauley-Stein draw from an opponent's bigs, Lyles is often a matchup UK can exploit to great advantage. This will be especially true for a Mountaineer team that simply has no one who can match up with him. At best Holton and Williams will have their hands full down low (assuming they're not on the bench in foul trouble) which leaves Daxter Miles (way undersized at 6'-3") or Nathan Adrian (gulp) to guard Lyles. That's not happening.
With all the attention on the other 4 starters it's Trey Lyles who I see giving WVU the most trouble.
Now to the Wildcat bench:
#3 Tyler Ulis : 5'-9" 155 lbs : PG
As a Kentucky and West Virginia fan I am pissed that my teams are matched up with each other, but as a basketball fan I'm absolutely giddy at the prospect of watching Ulis take on the Press. I was in the stands when UK destroyed Arkansas in the SEC tournament final and was amazed at Ulis' ability to shred the Razorbacks. His decision-making is superb for a senior, much less a freshman. He doesn't dribble to bad spots, can dribble out and around a trap and in general makes Kentucky very, very hard to pressure.
If Andrew Harrison struggles at all early, expect a heaping helping of Ulis. Remember that Louisville game I talked about earlier? UK took control when they brought in Ulis and he had probably his best game of the year, playing 26 minutes, scoring a season-high 14 and just generally managing things. He's averaging 3.8 assists per game and only 1.1 turnovers. He's a perfect change of pace for the larger Harrison and while he can get to the rim and get his own shot he's primarily a distributor. Of course the bad news is that when the defense forgets about him he's deadly from outside, shooting 42.3% from 3 (but he only takes about 2 or 3 per game).
The only x factor with Ulis is he's a hard-nosed tough kid who won't back down from anybody - literally. In Kentucky's SEC tournament semifinal against Auburn Ulis had to be separated from 7'-2" Trayvon Reed. It's a great picture. I say all that because WVU will be talking and Ulis could maybe, perhaps make a small mistake by jumping back in someone's face and getting a whistle. I wouldn't expect it but it's the closest I can come to finding a weakness in his game.
#1 Devin Booker : 6'-6" 206 lbs : SG
Booker was one of the poster boys for Kentucky's regular season run, scoring in double digits 11 times in his first 16 conference games as he was named the SEC Freshman of the Week an amazing 4 consecutive weeks and at one point boasting a 3 point shooting percentage in the 60s. Unfortunately he hit a small shooting swoon in late February / early March that saw him come back down to earth and then a massive swoon in the postseason that has officially become a Thing among UK fans. He's 1 for his last 10 over the past 3 games and has missed his last 9 3 point attempts. When he rises to shoot there's an audible gasp from the Big Blue Faithful and then and exhale when the ball clangs off the rim.
Booker is a big x-factor for Kentucky in this game. If his swoon continues it robs Kentucky of a weapon that would seem well-suited for a WVU squad that struggled with athletic big wings (I'd draw your attention to the mention of Baylor's Royce O'Neale above). He can do work off the dribble, is reliable in transition and is a good defender, but Booker is largely toothless if he can't shoot.
If Booker can regain his touch however, WVU could be in for a long day.
#44 Dakari Johnson : 7'-0" 255 lbs : C
Dakari Johnson has improved perhaps more than anyone else on Kentucky's team since last year. He lost some weight and more importantly bumped his free throw percentage from 44.7% to 62.3% - important for a guy who takes punishment down low and often finds himself at the line.
There's nothing flashy about Johnson's game, he's simply a really big body with above average footwork who can wear you down coming off the bench. He can move well for his size but isn't terribly athletic and can't get off the floor at all. He'll most likely see a lot of Elija Macon and perhaps a little Brandon Watkins and is much more polished than both. Most surprising about Dakari is how well he runs the floor, where he can often beat his man to a spot and set the stage for a nice post move.
I'll honestly be surprised if Dakari is much of a factor. His time in the rotation has shrunk to just 12-14 minutes a game as Cal has moved away from his platoon system and settled more into a traditional rotation. Perhaps he'll come in and catch WVU napping with some matchup problems, but he's a time filler and a space filler, notable only in how much better he is than the people who fill that roll for other teams.
#00 Marcus Lee : 6'-9" 220 lbs : F
Lee serves a similar purpose to Johnson, only has fallen into even less of a roll as Cal has shortened his bench, playing double-digit minutes only twice in the past 9 games. He's long and athletic and can get up off the ground very quickly, but isn't as strong with the ball as Cal and UK fans would like, often having rebounds knocked away when he fails to secure them with 2 hands. He can be pushed around and with his raw offensive game isn't much of a threat to do anything but clean up misses around the glass.
Having said all that he's still a very talented big who can come in and give you good minutes against another team's backups, and dunks off putbacks or lobs will ignite a crowd and team who love him and want to see him play better. And you can never predict when he'll make his presence known - last year he was a surprise jolt of electricity in UK's regional final win over Michigan, scoring a season-high 10 points in just 15 minutes, sparking UK at a time where they were still reeling from the loss of Willie Cauley-Stein. And it must be said that off the court Lee is simply a fantastic human being who creates fans wherever he goes.
So that's the Kentucky roster. There aren't a lot of weak spots but even the strongest suit of armor has some chinks. In the next day or so I'll give you what I see as WVU's best blueprint to beat what may very well be the best basketball team a Mountaineer squad has ever faced in front of what could be the biggest television audience.
WVU is facing history and the lights don't get any brighter than this.