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Calipari challenged his top-ranked team: ‘We’re going to be the aggressor’

CLEVELAND, Ohio — John Calipari opted to negate the aggression of West Virginia’s press by deploying one himself.

That strategy worked, as did everything else top-seeded Kentucky pitched Thursday night, generating a 78-39 runaway that seemed more suited to a nonconference tuneup than a Sweet 16 game.

“An old friend of mine says you press a pressing team,” Calipari said. “That’s why we put in the diamond press and that’s why we did some of the stuff we did, just to press them. To go ‘You’re not going to be the aggressor, we’re going to be the aggressor.'”

Kentucky’s pressure created a couple deflections and led to one West Virginia pass being tossed out of bounds. Perhaps it was more symbolic than decisive, meant to roust the Wildcats into attack-mode.

West Virginia came in forcing nearly 20 turnovers per game, tops in the nation, routinely pressuring opponents into carelessness. But Kentucky wasn’t rattled and committed only 10 turnovers, right on its season average, which also ranks among the best in the nation.

“When you have to prepare to play the teams we play—that press and trap and play physical—you have a little head start,” Calipari said. “At the beginning of the year, it’s one of the things that we’ll say let’s make sure we’re good against a press, that we have great spacing, that we understand what you’re trying to do and playing off one another.”

By the time the Mountaineers’ press registered a few steals in the second half, the lead was 30 and the game was long decided. Because West Virginia matched its season low with 13 baskets, the press rarely afforded opportunities for backcourt traps.

“They played great defense on us, which made it hard for us to even set up our defense, because we’ve got to score in order to get in our defense,” said West Virginia point guard Juwan Staten.

Kentucky’s stingiest defensive efforts included Kansas (40 points), Providence (38). Missouri (37) and Montana State (28). West Virginia reluctantly joined that list, making only 19 percent of its first-half shots and 24 percent overall.

“As far as getting shots off, I mean, they’re the biggest team in the country,” Staten said. “No team all year has been able to get easy shots on them. They played hard, they protected the rim, they guarded.”