CLEVELAND — Nothing has rattled Kentucky to this point. Unbeaten and unblemished, the Wildcats have handled every challenge this season.
They’re 36 for 36 in their run at hoops immortality. An interesting test awaits.
Big Blue is about to face something it hasn’t seen — a relentless, choking West Virginia press that has buckled teams and forced them to tap out. The Mountaineers are in your face for 40 minutes.
They’re nicknamed “Press Virginia” for good reason.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has warned his players what’s coming.
“You had better be ready,” he said.
The top-seeded Wildcats (36-0), four wins from perfection and becoming the first team to go unbeaten since Indiana in 1976, will have their ball-handling skills and composure assessed like never before Thursday night when they meet the fifth-seeded Mountaineers (25-9) in the Midwest regional semifinals.
Notre Dame (31-5) and Wichita State (30-4) play in the other Sweet 16 matchup with the winners meeting Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.
Kentucky hasn’t shown any flaws in easy wins over Hampton and Cincinnati, but neither of those squads play defense quite like the Mountaineers, who can turn games into a 94-foot street fight. West Virginia, which leads the nation in steals, forced 40 turnovers in its NCAA tournament wins over Buffalo and Maryland.
“They’re creating havoc, they’re taking you out of your offense, they’re creating opportunities for tough shots or turnovers,” Calipari said. “They’re playing very physical, they’re coming in and letting you know it’s going to be body to body.”
That’s the way Bob Huggins likes it. West Virginia’s no-nonsense coach has created a five-headed defensive monster in his Mountaineers. They double-team, harass, push, disrupt and do everything possible within the rules to get the ball back. They don’t stop, and just when you think it’s safe, here they come again.
The Terrapins were flipped onto their backs by the Mountaineers’ pressure.
Heading into the season, Huggins knew he had to do something with his team, which lacks quality shooters and scorers. He had given up the press while at Cincinnati, but after running into longtime friend and former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey this summer, Huggins decided it was time to bring back the press.
Mackey, who took the Vikings on a Cinderella ride in the 1986 NCAA tournament with a “run and stun” press, looked at Huggins’ team and convinced him the press would work.
“I think Kevin was the best teacher of the press maybe in the history of college basketball,” Huggins said. “I thought if he thought we could do it, then maybe we could do it.”
The Mountaineers have never tried their calling card on Kentucky’s lengthy guards, who might be able to throw the ball over the top. If that happens, the Wildcats could turn the matchup into a dunk drill.
Huggins understands there is no Plan B if West Virginia doesn’t force Kentucky into mistakes.
“It’s going to be a long day for us if we can’t,” he said.
Mountaineers guard Juwan Staten is confident the press will work — even against these top Cats.
“Why wouldn’t it?” he said. “We’ve been playing this way all year, we’ve had success against everybody no matter what style or what type of players they have. That’s the only way we play and it’s just up to us to make it work.”
HEART OF THE MATTER: Huggins and Calipari each offered versions of the story that best underscores their friendship and rivalry.
In 2002, Huggins suffered a heart attack while in Pittsburgh and was being transported to the hospital when he got into a conversation with the medical technician riding with him.
“I kind of came to and I said, ‘How much further we got to go?’” Huggins said. “You know how they do, they tap you on the leg, saying I’ve never lost a patient, you’ll be fine. I said, ‘Listen, I’m not some 90-year-old lady, I know when I’m hurt. I’m not going to make it much longer.’ ”
Huggins said the EMT radioed ahead to the hospital and then had something to tell him.
“So I came to and I was fairly coherent at that time and he said, ‘Coach, listen, I can’t let you die, I’m John Calipari’s cousin, and you can’t die until we beat you at least once.’ ”
Huggins is 8-2 in career matchups with Calipari.
FAMOUS FRIEND: As they walked the hallways of Quicken Loans Arena, a few Kentucky players stopped to admire a mural of LeBron James, the Cavaliers’ superstar who calls “The Q” home.
Calipari has known James for years, and said he’s kept tabs of his return to Cleveland and the Cavs’ rise after a slow start this season under first-year coach David Blatt
“It takes time for things to click, and I think Dave’s doing a great job,” Calipari said. “I’ve said it before, and obviously the best player in the universe is LeBron and I’m happy for him and being able to come home and do the things that he’s doing.”