SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When Kentucky and West Virginia played in the Las Vegas Invitational last season, the teams combined for 43 fouls, 39 turnovers and 4-for-23 shooting from three-point range. UK scored its second-fewest points in 2008-09. WVU scored its fewest.
No wonder WVU Coach Bob Huggins recoiled as a reporter asked what he remembered about that 54-43 loss. "I'm trying to forget," he said in his signature deadpan delivery.
Lovers of pretty jump shots and high-flying, thrill-seeking basketball might mimic the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce when contemplating the Kentucky-West Virgina game in the NCAA Tournament East Region final.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
But both teams expect that what happened in Vegas on Nov. 29, 2008 will happen in the Carrier Dome Saturday night.
When told that Kentucky players spoke of a tough, physical game, West Virginia forward Wellington Smith said, "They're right.
"We haven't been pretty all season. Our highlight film is going to be just a whole lot of ugly stuff. That's the way we play. We don't play flashy."
Alley-oop passes are not found in the Mountaineers' playbook. Smith suggested that WVU threw an alley-oop that netted a dunk for the first time all season in the East Region semifinal victory over Washington Thursday night.
Of course, the method of WVU's mayhem is to prevent the other team from gathering any highlight material. The Mountaineers try to keep the score low, rebound with single-minded focus, defend and make enough plays down the stretch to win.
"We're a gritty, ugly basketball team," said Da'Sean Butler, who has played a big part in making that formula work by hitting six game-winning shots this season. "Just grind it out and try to win the game. I wouldn't expect anything different."
Kentucky does not.
Mark Krebs, who grew up across from Cincinnati in Newport, remembered WVU Coach Bob Huggins from his days leading the Bearcats basketball program.
"I know how Coach Huggins' teams play," Krebs said. "His No. 1 goal is to be physical, out-tough the other team and get loose balls and rebound. Offense is going to come in second."
UK point guard John Wall, perhaps the flashiest player in America, acknowledged his preference for artistic basketball.
"I'd rather have a pretty game," he said, "but sometimes you have to slow down and execute."
As its 35-2 record suggests, Kentucky is unsafe for opponents at any speed. UK has won by scoring as many as 102 points (102-92 against Sam Houston State) and as few as 58 (58-56 at Vanderbilt).
The Cats seem to purr more efficiently when the tempo rises. The more the opponents turn the ball over, the faster Kentucky's transition game spreads the score.
West Virginia, which lost starting point guard Darryl Bryant to a broken foot earlier in the week, committed 23 turnovers in beating Washington 69-56 in a messy semifinal game.
Huggins shuddered at the thought of 23 more Mountaineer turnovers against Kentucky. "If that's the case, they're going to have a field day," he said.
Joe Mazzulla, a gritty player UK Coach John Calipari likened to a disheveled former pro quarterback, Billy Kilmer, noted the importance of West Virginia returning to the form that led to an average of 11.6 turnovers before facing Washington.
"It kind of came with the territory," he said of the 23 turnovers. "Washington was very loose with the ball. I don't think they care if they turn it over because they're so dependent on the transition game."
Although preferring to run, Kentucky considers defense and rebounding its calling cards.
Huggins, who pooh-poohed how anyone could think "my skinny guys" could be physical against Kentucky's imposing front line, did recall one aspect of the game against Kentucky last season. "What I would want is for us to finally make some shots," he said. The Mountaineers made only 15 of 59 shots against UK.
Against Washington, West Virginia seemed to initiate its offense by launching shots and then letting its rebounders, who ranked ninth nationally (plus 6.9), go get the ball.
UK's leading rebounder, DeMarcus Cousins, figured that a good rebounding game will usher Kentucky into the Final Four.
"If we can keep them off the offensive board," he said, "it should be an easy game."
For Kentucky, surely easy would more than compensate for ugly.