John Clay

It’s a steep hill to climb, but Kentucky has opportunity at West Virginia

Kentucky forward Kevin Knox dribbles around Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon during their game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Knox scored 19 points in UK’s 78-65 victory.
Kentucky forward Kevin Knox dribbles around Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon during their game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Knox scored 19 points in UK’s 78-65 victory. aslitz@herald-leader.com

For a team that has had its struggles on the road and has yet to record a top-25 win, Kentucky’s trip to West Virginia on Saturday for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge can be seen as something of an uphill struggle.

On a more positive note, it can be seen as a golden opportunity. Currently ranked seventh, Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers have been as high as No. 2 in the AP rankings. They are eighth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom, and seventh in the nation overall, according to Jeff Sagarin.

They’re also angry, having lost three of their last four after a 15-1 start. One was a one-point loss at Texas Tech. Another was a home loss to Kansas in which Huggins’ club blew a 13-point halftime lead. The third came Monday night in Fort Worth, Texas, when WVU shot just 33.3 percent from the floor and fell 82-73.

“It wasn’t like we didn’t have shots. We had shots,” said Huggins after the game. “We’re just not making any.”

Given all that, you don’t think Morgantown will be pumped for Kentucky’s first game at West Virginia since 1970?

On the flip side, however, maybe this is exactly what John Calipari’s young club needs. Ranked 15th in the RPI, Kentucky is 1-3 against Top 25 RPI teams with a win over Louisville (12th) and losses to Kansas (seventh), Tennessee (13th) and Florida (25th).

The Cats are 3-4 away from Rupp Arena, including 2-2 in true road games. They’ve won at LSU and Vanderbilt; lost at Tennessee and South Carolina.

They saw their 30-game home SEC winning streak snapped last Saturday by Florida 66-64, then bounced back to beat Mississippi State 78-65 on Tuesday night.

Now 2-5 in the SEC, Mississippi State is not the strongest of opponents, but there were some encouraging signs in UK’s performance against the Bulldogs. PJ Washington scored a career-high 22 points. Kevin Knox was 4-for-4 from three-point range, tying his season high for threes. Jarred Vanderbilt grabbed seven rebounds in just 11 minutes. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played 35 minutes without committing a turnover.

There were also some rough spots. Nick Richards played just 11 minutes thanks to zero points and one rebound. Since his return from a back strain, Quade Green is 1-for-10 from the floor and 0-for-5 from three-point range over two games. And Vanderbilt missed six of his seven attempted shots Tuesday.

“He’s got to play,” said Calipari of Vanderbilt on Tuesday. “But we’ve got to get him comfortable where he’s playing.”

WVU Coliseum will be far from comfortable. Just because Huggins and Calipari are old friends doesn’t mean the Mountaineers will roll out the welcome mat. And West Virginia’s playing style is something that could exploit Kentucky’s biggest weakness.

Press Virginia they call it. Over the past several years, the Mountaineers have executed a full-court pressing, harassing style of defense that thrives off forcing turnovers. Heading into Wednesday night’s games, West Virginia was fourth in the nation in forced turnovers per game at 19.1. It was second in defensive turnover percentage, turning opponents over 26.1 percent of their possessions.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is 230th in offensive turnover percentage. After committing 16 at South Carolina and 16 more — six of them walking violations — at home against Florida, UK cut the turnover total to 11 against Mississippi State.

“We’re a team that, you know, we can’t afford those kinds of errors,” Calipari said. “Now we only had 11 turnovers (Tuesday). That’s a big jump for us.”

The Cats certainly can’t afford those errors Saturday in front of a wild West Virginia crowd and against a Huggins team anxious to slip its recent slump and pounce once the Cats arrive.

A pessimist/realist would pronounce that a heavy lift for a Kentucky team that starts five freshmen. An optimist would see it as UK’s next best opportunity for the season’s most significant win.

Saturday

Kentucky at No. 7 West Virginia

7 p.m. (ESPN)

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