Mark Story: Freshman back court was no match for West Virginia's defense

Freshman backcourt no match for West Virginia's defense

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 28, 2010 

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — All year long, Kentucky's all-freshman backcourt defied its age.

John Wall was a one-man highlight reel. Eric Bledsoe was a relentless attack dog at both ends of the court.

Yet in the biggest game of the 2009-10 season, UK rediscovered a hard truth of basketball reality: Even wonderful freshman guards are, ultimately, still freshman guards.

West Virginia stole Kentucky's Final Four berth with a 73-66 victory in the NCAA Tournament East Region finals Saturday before 22,497 in The Carrier Dome.

WVU (31-6) won, in large part, because of a 1-3-1 zone that seemed to confound Kentucky's youthful backcourt.

Unable to find seams in the zone or successfully shoot over it, Wall missed 11 of his 18 shots and all but one of his three-point attempts. He also committed five turnovers.

Without any viable long-range attack (UK was 4-for-32 from three-point range and didn't hit a trey until 3:25 was left in the game) Kentucky's offensive possessions kept being snuffed out in the maze that was the Mountaineers' 1-3-1.

"They were a long, athletic team," Wall said of West Virginia. "They did a great job of denying us from getting to the wings. We didn't make enough shots to spread them out. Hats off to them, their defense did a great job."

Bledsoe had an even rougher night. His first half was lost to foul trouble, as he picked up his second with 13:17 left and sat out the remainder of the half.

He managed to stay on the court in half No. 2, but the guy who entered the game having made 40 of his prior 63 shots was 3-for-9 from the floor, 0-for-5 from three-point range and an arctic 1-for-6 from the foul line.

The Kentucky freshman guards got scant little help from the "third guard" position. Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Darnell Dodson — who were being given open shots — combined to go 4-for-22 from the floor, 3-for-18 on treys.

"The 1-3-1 bothered us more than I thought it would," Calipari said. "We were trying to go inside, but we weren't making shots. And it gets a little demoralizing when you miss (the number of outside) shots we missed."

Cornell also played some 1-3-1 against UK in Thursday's East Region semifinals, Calipari noted. "But they weren't as big as West Virginia," the Kentucky coach said.

The Mountaineers had rangy athletes standing 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-9 all around the zone except the baseline, where point guard Joe Mazzulla roamed.

Two thoughts come from the loss that extends Kentucky's Final Four drought to 12 years.

With the effectiveness of the 1-3-1, I think we saw why Bob Huggins entered Saturday's game with a 7-1 record head-to-head against Calipari.

It also raises questions about Kentucky's schedule and whether the Cats were prepared for this kind of test. This isn't UK's fault. Kentucky tried to play a top-line non-conference schedule with North Carolina, Connecticut, Indiana and Louisville.

Unfortunately for UK, all four of those basketball royalists were mediocre or worse in 2009-10.

So when UK ran up against a tough, athletic West Virginia using a defense Kentucky had not seen much of this season, the Cats didn't have the answers.

Especially the youthful Kentucky backcourt.

Even when not playing anything close to his "A" game, Wall's such a talent that he finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

But in what is almost certainly his final college basketball game, Wall was not the best point guard on the floor. West Virginia's gutty Mazzulla (17 points and several back-breaking drives for layups) was.

We may or may not have seen the last of Bledsoe in Kentucky Blue and White, too.

If so, the two freshman guards made 2009-10 quite a thrill ride for those who watch Kentucky basketball.

It's just, in the game that mattered most, West Virginia and its quirky 1-3-1 zone stole the show.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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