On the heels of yet another convincing win, the No. 1-seeded Kentucky Wildcats (36-0; 18-0) take on No. 5-seeded West Virginia (25-9; 11-7) in a Sweet 16, Midwest region, NCAA tournament game on Thursday night in Cleveland.
Kentucky was briefly challenged by a scrappy Cincinnati team in the Round of 32, but eventually pulled away to win comfortably, 64-51. John Calipari’s squad struggled from the floor against the Bearcats, shooting just 37 percent, but the Wildcats pulled out the win by dominating defensively and battling in the post. The superlative frontcourt of Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles combined for 28 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocks.
"I always like it when my team shoots 37, 36, 35 percent and wins in double digits," Calipari said in a press conference. "It shows them they don't have to make shots to win. You can miss them all. No, you can't miss them all. You can miss most of them, and you can still win games if you defend, you rebound and you play that way, make your free throws, and they did."
Kentucky converted 20-of-28 (71.4 percent) free throws in the victory that clinched the longest win streak to start a season. The Wildcats may need to shoot closer to their season average of 46.9 percent in the Sweet 16 clash with the Mountaineers.
West Virginia held off Maryland, 69-59, in the third-round to set up the meeting with Kentucky. They earned the win with physical play and a hard press, forcing the Terrapins into 23 turnovers.
"It seems like everywhere we go people say, well, it's not pretty," said head coach Bob Huggins at a press conference. "Well I think it's beautiful. I love it. I love the fact that we can not make shots and still win - still find a way to score.
"It's hard work. It's hard and it comes down to having a lot of heart.”
West Virginia’s hard-charging attitude is similar to Cincinnati’s style of play, which caused issues for Kentucky. Huggins, with 693 career wins and two Final Four appearances, should have his team playing with confidence. Guard Juwan Staten (14.2 ppg, 4.8 apg) and forward Devin Williams (11.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) will likely have to carry the scoring load. The Mountaineers average an NCAA-best 10.9 steals per game, and are expected to pressure the Wildcats to force turnovers. Kentucky’s guard trio of Aaron and Andrew Harrison along with Devin Booker, which combines for 31 points per game, will have to calm the Wildcats under the WVU press.
Kentucky is certainly expected to remain perfect and advance to the Elite Eight, but it might not be an easy task against a pesky West Virginia squad.
"West Virginia probably got more out of their team -- Bobby Huggins -- than any team in the country," Calipari said on Selection Sunday.
Betting Odds: Kentucky by 13.5 points
Prediction: The last time a Kentucky opponent came within two field goals of defeating the Wildcats was LSU on Feb. 10. For 12 consecutive games, Calipari's squad has come away with convincing victories, and there is little evidence to suggest that West Virginia will halt that trend. The Mountaineers have enough weapons to give Kentucky a scare, but the Wildcats are simply too focused and determined to be derailed this early.
Predicted Score: Kentucky over West Virginia, 72-62