Coach John Calipari likened Kentucky's games against Auburn and Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to football. At one point, he appealed to the referees to prevent bodily harm.
Tyler Ulis likened UK's bruising battle with Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament Saturday to "kind of like the Louisville game."If anything, this pressure — which Calipari likes to call pressing, trapping, clawing, biting — ratchets up further with Kentucky's Sweet 16 game Thursday against West Virginia. Or as the Mountaineers are affectionately known, "Press Virginia."
The man WVU Coach Bob Huggins went to for guidance about a pressure style says his student learned well.
"Their pressure, in my opinion, is the best in the country ... ," said Kevin Mackey, a former college coach who now scouts for the Indiana Pacers. "West Virginia's is relentless. They won't stop. They'll keep coming. They're all in on it. It's not they're-going-to-try-it-and-see-how-it-works. They're going to come at them and come at them and come at them."
Of course, Kentucky felt plenty of pressure (and hands, forearms, chests, hips, etc.) in recent games. So the Mountaineers' style is nothing new, and nothing Kentucky hasn't defeated.
When asked if opponents made the wrong choice in pressuring UK, Ulis said, "I wouldn't say it's the wrong choice because they have to do something in order to win. So they're going to try that. But as a team, we're all strong-minded. So we just play through it and keep our head level."
Such was the case against Cincinnati. With a crocodile smile, forward Gary Clark said before the game that UC would use "the Bearcat Way" against Kentucky.
Cincinnati had more fouls (22) than baskets (20) as Kentucky won 64-51.
"We're going to fight through no matter what," Ulis said. "We had a lot of calls that we thought we should have got. But we didn't cry about it. We didn't complain about it. We just tried to play through it."
After his teams had a record of 30-35 the last two seasons, Huggins, 61, showed that he was willing to change. "I like to win," he said.
It was at a camp last July sponsored by LeBron James that Huggins asked Mackey for advice on pressure defense.
"We started talking about how is the team going to be, what kind of team, boom-boom-boom," Mackey said of the typical basketball chitchat. "He said he liked his team. They were tough. They were athletic. They were competitors. But he did question the ability to shoot the ball. So, he said, he wanted to do the pressure."
Mackey became a coaching celebrity in the 1986 NCAA Tournament when his Cleveland State team, led by a guard named Ken "Mouse" McFadden, upset mighty Indiana. Mackey told Huggins about a pressure attack he calls "run-and-stun."
Apparently, pressure basketball invites nicknames. Arkansas calls its style "the 40 fastest minutes in basketball." Nolan Richardson liked to call it "40 minutes of hell."
"I think you'll say — good, bad or indifferent — the pressure on Thursday night will be much more extreme pressure," said Mackey, who happened to attend Kentucky's Feb. 28 home game against Arkansas. "It will keep coming and coming. It'll make it fun for fans. It'll be a fun game to watch."
Maryland did not appear to have much fun in losing 69-59 to West Virginia on Sunday night. The Terps committed a season-high 23 turnovers (West Virginia opponents have averaged 19.6 turnovers).
Maryland's primary ball-handler, Melo Trimble, fell victim to what could be called basketball's version of the three-knockdown rule. He had to leave the game in the second half because of an apparent head injury.
"They're good at it," Maryland forward Evan Smotrycz said of West Virginia's pressure style. "It's what they do. It's non-stop. We didn't handle it the right way the whole game."
Although Kentucky has had to slug it out in several recent games, Devin Booker balked at the notion of the Cats getting beaten up.
"I wouldn't say that," he said. "I feel our team is too deep to get beat up. If some of us are beat up, all of us can't be beat up at the same time. We don't play enough. That's good for us. I think that's why we've had the success we've had."
Is Kentucky susceptible to pressure?
"To a certain degree, they are," Mackey said. "But they have more answers than anybody. I think we'll see a lot of three guards (on the floor) Thursday night. I think Ulis will play a lot."