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Mountaineers not satisfied or scared as they aim to interrupt Kentucky’s run

As Cincinnati’s Shaquille Thomas learned, Kentucky’s interior defense—led here by Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles—can be be daunting.

 

COMMENTARY

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After West Virginia dispatched Buffalo in its NCAA opener, Gary Browne ambled into the locker room announcing, “One down, five to go.”

Following Sunday night’s victory over Maryland, Browne smiled wide over his team’s slot in the Sweet 16 only to follow up, “It’s not enough.”

Among the many degrees of satisfaction layered throughout the NCAA tournament, reaching the second weekend rings like a major accomplishment for the Mountaineers—at least to those on the outside. As for the Mountaineers, themselves, they aren’t simply waiting for the ride to end. They’re not convinced this is gravy for a season largely spent exceeding projections.

They certainly aren’t buying projections of Kentucky skating to 40-0.

“Now we get to go play the, supposedly, best team in the country, at least on paper,” said Jonathan Holton. “I mean, I know they’re good, but they haven’t played Press Virginia yet.”

Daxter Miles piped up next to Holton, re-emphasizing that word “supposedly.” While Kentucky’s 10 top-50 recruits may represent the deepest roster to march through the Madness, the Mountaineers will continue using the qualifier until experiencing Big Blue first-hand.

For months we’ve speculated on potential history unfolding—Coach Cal’s team reeling off 36 wins, 30 of them by double-digits. Even that string of blowouts, however, can be explained away partially: “They play in the (expletive) SEC,” said one West Virginia player.

Kentucky is being measured by quite a different standard, as evidenced by the panning it took after beating Cincinnati 64-51 on Saturday. Maligned for a game it led by 19 with 1:11 to play. By 19!

Their shooting was iffy. Their toughness was dented. Such an invincible-looking team expects these demerits because invincibility is a lie. But every crack of vulnerability seems to have been scripted by Calipari.

“I always like it when my team shoots 37, 36, 35 percent and wins in double digits,” he said. “It shows them they don’t have to make shots to win. You can miss most of them, and you can still win games if you defend, you rebound and make your free throws.”

Coincidentally, Bob Huggins hummed a similar refrain after the win over Maryland, though he could scarcely enjoy the moment with postgame questioning dominated by the next opponent and whether West Virginia was capable of breaking through against UK.

“Well, 36 people haven’t been,” Huggins replied. “I don’t know. We’re going to have fun trying. … I can tell you that we’re not going to be scared.”

Even as the largest of all the Sweet 16 underdogs (13 points), the Mountaineers don’t do scared. Nor are they satisfied by two tournament wins, as evidenced by their two-word huddle-break routine all season.

“We don’t say ‘National Champs!’ for no reason,” Miles said, admitting Kentucky has been on the Mountaineers’ minds since the bracket unveiling. “Yeah, I’ve already been thinking about them, but we’re the best pressing team in America, so they’re going to have to think about us, too.”







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