Five things to know about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, the West Virginia Mountaineers:
1. After a red-hot start, West Virginia has cooled off
Bob Huggins’ team flew all the way to Germany to get clocked by Texas A&M 88-65 in the season opener back when Texas A&M was really good. Once the Mountaineers got back to the states, however, they took off.
West Virginia won 15 straight games, including victories over then No. 15 Virginia 68-61 and then No. 7 Oklahoma 89-76 both in Morgantown. A 57-54 win over visiting Baylor on Jan. 9 brought WVU to 4-0 in the Big 12.
It has been tougher sledding since then, starting with a 72-71 loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock. Two days later, the Mountaineers return home to take on Kansas in a Big Monday blockbuster. Huggins and Co. coughed up a 16-point lead and lost 71-66 to Jayhawks.
West Virginia bounced back to thump visiting Texas 86-51 last Saturday, but lost another Big Monday appearance, this time at TCU 82-73, leaving WVU 5-3 and in a four-way tie for second place in the Big 12 with Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas State, one game behind 6-2 Kansas.
2. West Virginia still lives off turning opponents over and over
Huggins claims that his team’s full-court press is not as disruptive as it has been or should be, but the numbers suggest West Virginia is still turning opponents’ over.
According to Ken Pomeroy, the Mountaineers are turning over opponents’ on 26.1 percent of their possessions, which ranks second in the nation. WVU is fourth in the nation in turnovers forced per game at 19.1. It is third in the nation in steal percentage at 12.7.
Overall, West Virginia ranks 10th in overall efficiency by Pomeroy, seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency compared to 38th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Opponents are shooting 44 percent from two-point range, which ranks 15th in the nation. And WVU is blocking 16.2 percent of opponents’ shots.
Overall, West Virginia’s opponents are shooting 40.2 percent, which ranks 29th out of the 351 Division-I schools.
3. Jevon Carter is West Virginia’s Perry Ellis
You remember, Ellis, the Kansas’ forward who seemed as if he was a Jayhawk for life, playing 144 games from 2012-13 through 2015-16.
Carter, a 6-foot-2 senior from Maywood, IL, has played in 120 games for the Mountaineers from 2014-15 through this season. For his college career, Carter is averaging 29 minutes per game.
He’s also improved each year, going from 8.1 points per game as a freshman to 9.5 as a sophomore and 13.5 as a junior. He leads WVU in scoring this year at 16.9 points per game. Carter is shooting just 40.8 percent form the field, however, including 38.7 percent from three-point range.
Carter’s greatest strength is his defense, particularly in Press Virginia’s full-court press.
“When one thinks of WVU guard Jevon Carter, he’s no doubt in a defensive stance, sweat rolling from his head and poised to strike for a steal like a Texas rat snake,” wrote Mitch Vingle of the Charleston Gazette-Mail back in December. “And last Thursday, Carter’s prowess in that regard was celebrated at the Coliseum in Morgantown. ‘J.C.,’ as he’s known to many, struck for the 252nd time in his college career by turning over New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Zach Smith, which led to a Teddy Allen jam.
“Mountaineer fans might know Carter was the NABC, Lefty Driesell Award and Big 12 defensive player of the year last season. They might recall he’s been on the all-Big 12 defensive team as a freshman, sophomore and junior.”
4. Sagaba Konate is making a name for himself
The 6-8 sophomore from Bamako, Mali is one of the most-improved players in all of college basketball, going from 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 10.9 minutes per game as a freshman to 9.6 points and 8.2 rebounds in 24.6 minutes this season.
Konate has scored in double figures in each of his last three games and has produced four double-doubles in his last nine games. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds in the loss to Kansas and 10 points and 14 rebounds in the win over Texas.
Where Konate is truly a force is around the rim. He is sixth in the nation in blocked shots at 3.26 per game. And he blocks many of those shots with two hands.
“How (does Kentucky) get Sagaba Konate outside of that paint, because he is on a two-hand tear at that rim, he really is,” said former Indiana coach and current ESPN analyst Tom Crean on Thursday. “He just punches shots. He takes the ball out of the air. He is one of the most improved players in the country, there’s no doubt about it. If they let him sit at that post, he could have a field day. Not just for what he blocks but for what he changes. They’ve got to get him pulled out away from the rim.”
“He is a presence around the goal both offensively and defensively,” said John Calipari on Friday. “He does what we are trying to get our bigs to do. When a shot releases, he’s figuring out where to be. He’s figuring out who to meet. And then he goes after balls with two hands. But again, we’re playing a veteran team that all the stuff we’re trying to teach they’re pretty good at it.”
5. Welcome to another round of the Huggins/Calipari friendship rivalry
Bob Huggins grew up in Port Washington, Ohio, just 87.9 miles from Moon Township, Pa. where Calipari grew up. Bob is 64. John is 58. But the two have been tight for years despite competing against each other when Huggins was at Cincinnati and Calipari was at UMass and then Memphis.
As has been well-chronicled, when Huggins suffered a massive heart attack at the Pittsburgh airport in 2002, Calipari was the first person he saw in the hospital. Through his connections in Pittsburgh, Calipari heard about the heart attack before it became public and flew in to be by Huggins’ side.
Huggins has had the better of the head-to-head matchups, going 8-3 against Calipari, including most famously West Virginia’s 73-66 win over Kentucky in the East Region final of the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky has won the last two meetings, both also in the Big Dance. UK won a second-round game 73-66 in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Then in 2015, Kentucky improved to 37-0 with a 78-39 smashing of the Mountaineers in a Midwest Region semifinal in Cleveland.
The two are still great friends. In fact, Calipari was to appear at the sold-out Bog Huggins Fish Fry on Friday in Morgantown to benefit a charity that raises money for cancer research for the Norma Rae Huggins Cancer Fund, named for Huggins’ mother who died in 2003 of colon cancer.
Bob Huggins vs. John Calipari
Huggins at Cincinnati vs. Calipari at UMass
- January 7, 1993: Cincinnati 64, UMass 53
- January 27, 1994: Cincinnati 76, UMass74
Huggins at Cincinnati vs. Calipari at Memphis
- February 15, 2001: Cincinnati 66, Memphis 65
- March 9, 2001: Cincinnati 89, Memphis 79
- March 3, 2002: Cincinnati 80, Memphis 75 (OT)
- March 1, 2003: Memphis 67, Cincinnati 48
- March 6, 2004: Cincinnati 83, Memphis 79
- March 5, 2005: Cincinnati 62, Memphis 60
Huggins at West Virginia vs. Calipari at Kentucky
- March 27, 2010: West Virginia 73, Kentucky 66
- March 19, 2011: Kentucky 71, West Virginia 63
- March 26, 2015: Kentucky 78, West Virginia 39
Kentucky at West Virginia
When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: West Virginia Coliseum in Morgantown
TV: ESPN with Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and Maria Taylor
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt