After days of buildup and nationwide exposure, No. 7 West Virginia’s clash with Kentucky is just hours away.
Before their live show Saturday morning on ESPN, the co-hosts of College GameDay broke down the matchup and explained what they think the Mountaineers must do to win.
Jay Williams: Dominate the glass
Kentucky’s roster features nine players standing 6’5” or taller, and most of the team’s scoring comes in the interior. On possessions where West Virginia doesn’t force turnovers with its press, the Mountaineers will have to limit Kentucky’s second chance opportunities.
“They’re going to need to gang rebound, and what I mean by that is, the guards are just as responsible as [Sagaba] Konate and Esa [Ahmad] are,” said Williams, who played pro basketball for the Chicago Bulls from 2002-2006. “It’s going to take that collective effort in order to keep UK off the glass.”
Williams spent time with WVU in Germany at the beginning of the regular season, and believes the Mountaineers are one of the grittiest teams in the country.
As for the Wildcats, the more shots they take against the Mountaineer defense, the better.
“If I’m UK, I’m thinking about whatever shot is a good shot, because that means the ball is up on the rim. It gives [them] a chance to get an offensive rebound,” said Williams. “That might be [their] best offense.”
Kentucky enters this contest after losing two of its last three games and falling out of the AP top 25 for the first time since 2014. Williams said Kentucky has yet to see an “alpha” emerge, something that’s been common on head coach John Calipari’s teams in past seasons.
“This year, they’re a talented team, but who is going to be able to step up in difficult times?” said Williams. “I think there are a lot of questions for this team, but there’s no doubt about it, they have talent. It’s just a matter of it collectively working together as a unit.”
Jay Bilas: Who can handle the pressure?
Bilas has ventured to Morgantown for a number of big games, and said two things come to mind when he thinks of the WVU Coliseum.
“It’s loud and hot,” said Bilas.
That atmosphere will exist with another sellout crowd in the building, and coupled with West Virginia’s high-pressure defense, Kentucky’s toughness will be tested.
“West Virginia makes the simplest thing really difficult,” said Bilas, who played at Duke from 1982-86. “I think a lot of players, especially younger players, take inbounding the ball for granted. Inbounding the ball against West Virginia is really difficult. By the second half or later in the game, after you’ve had the simple become really difficult for that period of time, you get worn down physically and mentally.”
If the Wildcats can break the press and get quality shots, West Virginia’s half-court offense will have to answer – and end its recent shooting slump – but Bilas thinks West Virginia will have success on defense against a young Kentucky team.
“It’s maybe the sternest test of mental and physical concentration that you’ll have on the road,” said Bilas.
Seth Greenberg: “Who can play harder, longer?”
While West Virginia is an experienced team, Kentucky features eight freshmen. Both squads play two different styles of basketball.
The question for Greenberg, who won 383 games during his 22 years as a head coach: can the Wildcats play harder than the Mountaineers?
“I think that’s been the challenge for Kentucky,” said Greenberg. “They’ll play hard for a period of time, but can they maintain that intensity? If you don’t against West Virginia, let’s face it, they’re going to get to the offensive glass, you’re going to be loose with the ball and they’re going to knock it away and be out in transition.”
Rece Davis: Which team will put recent struggles out of mind?
Both the Mountaineers and Wildcats have stumbled over the last month, with each posting 5-3 records in their respective conferences.
Davis believes West Virginia is one of the most talented teams in the country, and that Kentucky will provide another major test of the Mountaineers’ abilities.
“I think you look at this as a midseason measuring stick, maybe as an indicator of something you might see in the NCAA tournament,” said Davis, who has hosted College GameDay since 2015. “This is like a regional quality matchup. This is a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 type of matchup. There’s still time to grow, but you want to see where these teams stack up at this point.”
West Virginia squares off with Kentucky tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPN.