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2015 NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen Preview - Bring On The (Wild)Cats: How West Virginia Can Beat Kentucky

So you're saying there's a chance? Yes I am. Let's see what it would take for WVU to pull off their greatest upset ever when the Mountaineers take on Kentucky at approximately 9:45 pm ET tonight on CBS.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

2015 NCAA Tournament Bracket - Midwest Region - Land of Cleve, OH

2015 Regional Semi bracket

Game Day Vitals

Opponent Information


One Shining Moment

Game Preview

I'll start with the bad news. I think Kentucky will win. If you read my scouting report from earlier this week,  you know it was thin on hope and long on matchups that are unfavorable to WVU. I think Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein will be too much for WVU down low. I think Andrew Harrison and especially Tyler Ulis will, if not handle the press, make few enough mistakes to win. I think Aaron Harrison will shoot and drive from the wing and I think there's a chance Devin Booker could break out. I've watched both West Virginia and Kentucky play nearly all of their games this year and I think the Cats are about 12 points better.

That's what my brain tells me.

But if sports have taught us nothing else, they teach us that our brains are often stupid and nobody is unbeatable and no game has ever been won on paper. Crazy things can happen and never is this more on display than in the month of March and in the sport of college basketball. So what crazy things would need to happen for the West Virginia Mountaineers to pull off the greatest upset in their history against quite possibly the best team they've ever faced? Here's what I see as the keys to a WVU win.

Shoot Well From Outside.......And Then Stop

The first part of that is vintage Captain Obvious. Of course the Mountaineers need to shoot well. But a closer look at the numbers tells us a couple things - first that there's some reason to expect they COULD shoot well. Despite shooting a poor 32% on the season (good for 273rd nationally), the Mountaineers have gotten much better during their season-ending surge, shooting 37% while going 6-3. Daxter Miles has caught particular fire, hitting exactly half of his 3s (19/38) over the last 8 games. Gary Browne has been hot since his return as well, hitting 4 of his 7 3s during the first two games of the NCAAs. And keep in mind Jevon Carter, one of their better outside threats, has been pretty bad over this stretch, hitting just 4 of his 22 shots in the last 4 games - at some point that worm has to turn.

But you know who my x-factor is? Nathan Friggin' Adrian. He's been one of the biggest enigmas of the season as his 3 point average dropped from a respectable if not spectacular 35.8% last year to an abysmal 17.7% this year. Given that a vast majority of these shots are good, squared up looks and Adrian has a decent shot, you can only conclude that it's all in his head. But if Nate can get one off early and hit, imagine the psychological lift it would provide to this team. There aren't many valid comparisons to make between this game and the 2010 version, but we saw what can happen when a couple guys get hot who you didn't expect to get hot.

And now for the second part.........once they start hitting, the Mountaineers have to STOP. WVU has been guilty this season of hitting some early shots and then falling in love with the 3 ball, stagnating an already unreliable halfcourt offense and putting a freeze on their scoring. To go back to 2010, it's a testament to the intelligence of that team that they didn't shoot themselves out of their hot streak but instead immediately took advantage of a more spread-out Kentucky defense, driving the lane and getting better shots.

I'd be lying if I said that this year's team is half as smart or savvy as that 2010 crew, but if they do come out hitting, hopefully it's a template that their coach can guide them towards. Kentucky's biggest defensive vulnerability this season has been when their bigs are drawn out from below the hoop. Their 6'-6" twin guards can be beaten by smaller, quicker players. Juwan Staten certainly fits that mold.

Chaos Theory

I did another game preview for where I compared the Mountaineers to Joker in The Dark Knight:

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.

Often when Kentucky has gone on the road against a formidable opponent (Florida, LSU, Alabama), there's been a familiar pattern. The home team comes out with their pants on fire, diving at every loose ball, flying around blocking shots, hitting 3s, getting to the general playing with an intensity that Kentucky doesn't initially match because nobody can really match that every night. But invariably those teams burn themselves out and Kentucky just keeps on plugging along until you look up, there's 8 minutes left and they've built a 10 point lead that they will never relinquish.

West Virginia has the depth and the attitude that those teams lack. That version of themselves that these challengers expend so much energy trying to be, that's just who the Mountaineers are. If they can simply keep from being put away early and hang around within 10-12 points, you wonder how UK will respond to a sustained attack. Granted the Wildcats have stared losing dead in the face several times this year and failed to blink, but no team is infallible. Could mental strain manifest itself as a frustrated technical foul or just a regular foul that moves Karl-Anthony Towns or Willie Cauley-Stein to the bench early? Nobody knows. That's the beauty of chaos.

Daxter Miles' quotes on Wednesday seemed to be the type of Superman cape-tugging that WVU should be seeking to avoid, but there's also the chance that he planted those first seeds of frustration. Now Kentucky is answering questions about him and his team as opposed to the other way around. Ask Dez Wells what it's like to deal with a yapping Daxter all day. Kentucky hasn't been rattled all year, but if anyone can get to them it's the Mountaineers.

Finally I'll leave you with a few magic numbers:

  • WVU is 21-0 when holding an opponent to 70 or fewer points.
  • Kentucky is averaging 74.7 points per game
  • Kentucky ranks 129th in offensive rebounding percentage at 28%
  • WVU ranks 7th in offensive rebounding percentage at 38.8%
  • Kentucky PG Andrew Harrison doesn't have more than 2 turnovers in 11 games and has only 9 during that span
  • WVU is 4-2 in games where Jonathan Holton fouls out
  • Kentucky averages 10.6 turnovers per game
  • WVU forces an average of 19.6 turnovers per game