On Thursday night, West Virginia will be playing their toughest opponent in almost five years. The Mountaineers will do battle with No. 1 seed Kentucky, a team who hasn’t chalked up a loss all year.
The last time these two teams met was in the NCAA tournament in 2010 in the Elite 8 in which the Wildcats had multiple NBA stars such as John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.
This game is no different as Kentucky is loaded with NBA prospects.
The Mountaineers had key members step up for them when their name was called upon in the 2010, players like Joe Mazzulla and Devin Ebanks contributed to the upset and a trip to the Final Four.
To repeat history, these West Virginia players need to above and beyond to topple Kentucky and move on to the next round.
Saying that Kentucky has height is an understatement. The Wildcat’s average height is 6-foot-9. Williams will have to go up against 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, a player who has been dominating for the Wildcats.
Williams is a stronger than maybe some give him credit for. He will need to bully his way inside the paint and force the Wildcats to adjust to his physicality.
Williams is at his best when he gets second chances. He leads the Mountaineers, who according to TeamRankings.com are tied for first in the country in offensive rebounding. Williams will not back down from any challenge and wants to dictate the way the game is played.
“We’re gonna make it as ugly as we can make it,” Williams said. “At the end of the game, whatever way it goes, both teams have got to have their tongues hanging out of their mouths. That’s the only way it can be.”
He showed his toughness against Maryland and is looking for another big game against Kentucky.
Staten’s loyalty to West Virginia is indescribable. Ever since the point guard transferred from Dayton he devoted a lot of of time and effort to his team and would do anything it takes for this team to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s why he needs to shine on Thursday night and prove he’s the true catalyst for this team. To win against Kentucky, he must be the ultimate leader and back it up with his play.
Against Maryland, Staten was irrelevant. He scored a mere six points, went 2-5 from he foul line and just wasn’t the same, playmaking Staten he’s been all season.
“My teammates carried me through this one,” Staten said following the win over Maryland. “I don’t get any credit for this game. My teammates carried me.”
Some of Staten’s struggle can be attributed to his lack of practice and conditioning since suffering a knee injury against Texas back in February. He miss four straight games, including the loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament.
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Staten was visibly exhausted during the later part of the second half and at one point it prompted a timeout from head coach Bob Huggins.
“It’s just been emotional,” Staten said. “It took a lot out of me. I had three days of practice since we played our last game. I was trying to get in the best shape I could, you know, but you can’t prepare for games like this. It took everything in me to try and stay in the game and do the best I could.”
Staten can’t shy away from the moment and needs to erase last game’s performance from mind and return to the Staten the Mountaineer faithfuls have come to know.
In 2010, the Mountaineers had De’sean Butler to lead them to an upset. This time, however, it’s Staten who needs to fill those shoes.
Mar 22, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers players react from the bench during the second half against the Maryland Terrapins in the third round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
The West Virginia beach has been a key part in most of the team’s wins this year.
Unlikely heroes have surfaced for the Mountaineers throughout the season. Players like Tarik Phillip who hit a clutch 3-pointer in the win over Buffalo and Jevon Carter who made noise midway through the regular season.
This was not the case in the win against Maryland on Sunday night, though. West Virginia’s bench was out scored 20-9 by Maryland’s bench.
The bench must play a factor in order to pull of the upset. Low scoring numbers from bench players won’t cut it versus Kentucky.
Players in the form of Nathan Adriand, Jaysean Paige, Carter and Phillip will all need to make significant contributions. West Virginia will need it’s entire team to be playing at a high level.
Huggins relies on the depth of his team to continue to press and wear out opponents. The Mountaineers can’t match Kentucky’s quickness and endurance, they must be better than it.
With all that said, West Virginia has proved a lot of people wrong this NCAA tournament. They have shown maturity and toughness and have not backed down from any opponent. The way the Mountaineers have been playing, an upset just might be possible.
“They didn’t think we’d get past Buffalo,” said Staten. “We got past Buffalo. They didn’t think we’d get past Maryland, we got past Maryland. I’m pretty sure nobody in the world thinks we’re going to get past Kentucky besides the 1.2 million that’s in West Virginia. So we’re going to keep doing what we do. And keep playing.”