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Pressing on: Speeding up ‘Cats is risky, but it’s the only way WVU knows

CLEVELAND, Ohio — In the most bizarre press-beating analogy offered up all season, Willie Cauley-Stein likened his Kentucky teammates to caged raccoons.

“It’s just like cornering an animal when you’re hunting,” he said. “If you bring the dogs on us, we’re going to fight.

“Have you ever seen a raccoon? Raccoons are feisty. They’re not just going to roll over.”

No one expects a Kentucky roll-over in the Sweet 16, but West Virginia anticipates giving college basketball’s super-team the kind of persistent annoyance that leads to shaky dribbles and intercepted passes.

Sure, Kentucky faced degrees of pressure from Louisville and Arkansas (twice), comfortably winning those three games by an average margin of 13.3 points. But the navigating could prove trickier on Thursday night against Press Virginia, which traps after made baskets and missed shots alike.

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein says the Wildcats will fight like “cornered animals” if West Virginia bring full-court pressure.

“To be honest with you, we’ve watched games and I don’t think other people pressured them,” said Mountaineers guard Gary Browne. “They were just (playing) full-court man … We press and we’ll be 24/7 up in their faces. That’s why we’re No. 1 in the nation in forcing turnovers and steals.”

A potential upset could boil down to which team proves more rabid—West Virginia’s ball-hawking defenders or Kentucky’s offensive punishers. After all, the Wildcats say they’ve been itching for a transition game that allows their towering long-striders to flourish in the open court. (Most SEC opponents tried to limit possessions by dictating slower, halfcourt games.)

Committing only 10.6 turnovers per game, the Wildcats rank 24th in the nation and sense their skilled bigs will be effective passing over the press or dunking behind it.

“I feel like our big guys can do a lot of things our little guys do,” said Devin Booker. “We’ve got a lot of bigs who can do ‘guard’ things. The bigs basically go through the same workout that the guards do.”

Before declaring the Wildcats press-proof, however, recall that Kentucky turned it over a season-high 18 times at Louisville. That obviously was a blip for a team that stands 11th nationally in offensive efficiency.

“I don’t think you want to speed up Kentucky,” said Matt Jones of “Teams that try that usually do it for a few minutes and then realize this isn’t working.

“The caveat is nobody’s as good at (pressing) as West Virginia is. But I don’t think they can run for 40 minutes with Kentucky.”

West Virginia assistant Ron Everhart isn’t so certain. He broke down video of Ole Miss’ close call at Rupp Arena on Jan. 6, when the racehorse Rebels erased a 13-point deficit before losing 89-86 in overtime.

“The only team that tried to play them in a multiple-possession game this year was Ole Miss and it was a hell of a game, a down-to-the-wire game,” Everhart said.

WEST VIRGINIA (25-9) vs. KENTUCKY (36-0)

Tip-off: Approximately 9:45 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland (CBS)

RPIs: West Virginia 23, Kentucky 1

Line: Kentucky favored by 13.5

Prediction: Kentucky 72-63

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