West Virginia coach Bob Huggins has had his way against Kentucky’s John Calipari over the years.
Huggins is 8-2 all-time against his close friend. Meeting No. 11 will be Huggins’ greatest challenge against a Calipari-coached team when West Virginia takes on the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night in Cleveland.
“We’re going to have fun trying,” Huggins said. “He’ll have them ready. He always has them ready.”
Whether fifth-seeded West Virginia (25-9) will be ready for double-digit favorite Kentucky (36-0) may be another matter, but Huggins insists his players won’t give in to the pressure.
He noted that when senior guards Juwan Staten and Gary Browne were out with injuries late in the regular season, freshmen Javon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. embraced the opportunity to lead the team into Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, where the Mountaineers took the Jayhawks to overtime before losing 76-69.
“These guys are different,” Huggins said. “They kind of relish the moment. They love to play, and that’s what’s fun about them. They love to play. They love being around each other.”
So do Huggins and Calipari, who enjoy a longtime friendship. When Huggins suffered a heart attack at the Pittsburgh airport in 2002, Calipari went to visit him in the hospital.
Huggins said he couldn’t estimate the number of times the pair speak during the year.
“We talk about a lot of things,” Huggins said. “Sometimes it’s about basketball.”
Eight of Huggins’ wins against Calipari came when Huggins was Cincinnati’s coach. Six occurred when Calipari was at Memphis and two when he coached Massachusetts. They’re 1-1 head-to-head with their current teams.
It marks the third time in West Virginia’s last four NCAA Tournament appearances that it will play Kentucky.
West Virginia advanced to their first Final Four in 51 years by beating Kentucky 73-66 in 2010 when the Wildcats were a No. 1 seed in Calipari’s first season. Kentucky ousted the Mountaineers in the second round of the tournament a year later.
In 2010, West Virginia used a 1-3-1 zone defense that forced Kentucky to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range.
Huggins doesn’t plan to use that win as a blueprint this time.
On offense, West Virginia made eight 3-pointers in the first half without a 2-point basket in the 2010 game. This year’s team is making only 32 percent of its 3-point attempts and doesn’t have the same variety of long-range shooters.
But what West Virginia lacks in all-around shooting accuracy is a tenacity and grit to go after loose balls, rebounds and get in the face of opponents.
The centerpiece of West Virginia’s defense is a full-court press that has helped force an NCAA-best 19.6 turnovers per game. Maryland committed 23 Sunday night in West Virginia’s 69-59 win.
West Virginia also leads the nation with 16.5 offensive rebounds per game — Kentucky allowed 21 offensive rebounds in a 64-51 win over Cincinnati on Saturday.
But West Virginia managed only nine points from its bench against Maryland. The Mountaineers also have been too aggressive at times — they’ve set a school record with 792 personal fouls, something that will bear watching against Kentucky.
“I think they’re terrific defensively,” Huggins said. “John does a terrific job of getting them to guard, getting them to play together (and) share the ball. They guard so well.
“I think the hardest thing is going to be figuring out ways to score. We’ve got to find ways to still be able to attack the basket and be able to get it on the rim.”