West Virginia-Kentucky Preview
West Virginia's Bob Huggins and Kentucky's John Calipari can both laugh now.
They may have slightly different recollections of a humorous story they repeated on the eve of another matchup between the Mountaineers and Wildcats in the NCAA tournament, but that just makes the tale about the ambulance ride Huggins took after suffering a heart attack in 2002 that much more entertaining.
''Cal likes to tell it better than I do,'' Huggins said Friday, recalling one of the details the close friends agree on - Calipari's cousin was in the emergency vehicle that transported Huggins from the Pittsburgh airport to the hospital. ''Of course Cal wasn't dying and I was.''
Huggins' version ends with his counterpart's cousin identifying himself and declaring: ''We're not going to let you die until he beats you at least once.''
Calipari was one of the first to visit Huggins in the hospital. As for the ambulance ride, he said his cousin told Huggins who he was and assured Huggins he was going to be fine. ''And that's when Bob said: `Oh, my gosh, I'm not making it.'''
The coaches will put their friendship aside Saturday when fourth-seeded Kentucky (26-8) and fifth-seeded West Virginia (21-11) square off in the third round of the East regional. The teams also met in last year's regional final, with the Mountaineers winning 73-66 to advance to the Final Four.
West Virginia's Joe Mazzulla, who scored 17 points and spearheaded a defense that forced Kentucky into 4 of 32 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, said it really wouldn't seem like much of a rematch because the makeup of both teams had changed since the last meeting in Syracuse, N.Y.
Mountaineers star Da'Sean Butler has moved on. So have Kentucky's John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.
''It's like they have a completely different team. I'm not sure they have that inside presence that they had from Cousins, even though Josh Harrellson does a pretty good job,'' Mazzulla said.
''On our end, we're a much different team. We kind of spread the load out as far as what we're going to do offensively, and we really have to rely on defense and rebounding. So, I don't really think it's too much of a rematch.''
Kentucky survived its tournament opener Thursday, beating Princeton 59-57 on freshman star Brandon Knight's only basket of the night - a driving layup with 2 seconds left.
If the Wildcats are going to return to the round of 16, they'll likely need more production from Knight and two other freshmen who play key roles for Kentucky - Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.
The trio got together at last year's McDonald's All American game and watched the Wildcats' regional final loss to West Virginia as a group.
''We definitely saw how the team struggled to shoot the basketball, and how West Virginia basically made every shot,'' Knight said. ''It was kind of tough to watch that.''
West Virginia stymied the favored Wildcats with a 1-3-1 zone that pushed Kentucky's shooters farther out on the floor. That figures be part of the Mountaineers' game plan again.
''Last year, when they went 4 for 32, a lot of their shots were contested, under duress from the 1-3-1. We got them off of the 3-point line and probably a few steps back,'' Mazzulla said.
''That's just what we've got to do (Saturday). We can't let them get standstill shots and we can't let them set their feet. If we can make them rush their 3-pointers, and if we can get a hand in their face, then hopefully it'll be the same result.''
Huggins is 8-1 against Calipari-coached teams - 5-0 before the heart attack and 3-1 since.
But Kentucky enters this one playing its best ball of the season. The Wildcats have won nine of their last 10, including seven straight.
Calipari feels good about the progress of his freshmen, as well as three key veterans who assumed different roles this season.
''Really we gear everything toward this time of year,'' he said, ''and we're just playing to play our best. ... We just want to make sure we're doing everything - that they're fresh mentally, they're fresh physically, and we're in the greatest frame of mind this time of year. ... Historically, my teams have been fairly good in March.''