NCAA Tournament: Different teams meet again
TAMPA, Fla. – A year ago Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight were high school superstars caught up in March Madness like so many others.
Knight was committed to Indiana, Lamb three weeks from committing to Kentucky and Jones a month away from committing to Washington when they found themselves looking toward their futures in college basketball and watching the Wildcats play West Virginia in the Elite Eight.
"All three of us were watching it together at the McDonald's All-American game," Jones said. "Right after the practice the game was on and we all three were right there in front of the screen watching it. We saw the whole game and how they struggled to shoot the ball and to get them out of the zone by shooting the ball."
Kentucky missed its first 20 3-point attempts and finished 4-for-32 as the Mountaineers won to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1959. The three freshmen -- who replaced freshmen and first-round NBA Draft picks John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton -- are three of many reasons today's third-round NCAA Tournament game is not a rematch.
"I don't think so," said WVU point guard Joe Mazzulla. "They have a completely different team. I'm not sure they have that inside presence what they had from Cousins. 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."
The two play at 12:15 p.m. Saturday on CBS at the St. Pete Times Forum with the winner advancing to the Sweet Sixteen next week in Newark, N.J. Kentucky (26-8) is the fourth seed and WVU (21-11) is the fifth seed in the East Region.
Last year Kentucky was the top seed in the East and WVU was No. 2. Kentucky relied heavily on Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe for points and the Mountaineers, who then relied on since-departed Devin Ebanks, Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith, played a 1-3-1 zone with great success because the planned approach wasn't working.
"We thought we could do a better job man-to-man a year ago than what we did," Coach Bob Huggins said. "We'd put Dev on a lot of really good players and because he was so long, he bothered people. John Wall went by him a couple times and he came over to me and said, 'Coach, man, that cat is fast. I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying.' He couldn't stay in front of him. So he had to try to do something else."
This year's team relies on the 1-3-1 on only the trickiest of spots and usually just to force the opponent to run clock. The Mountaineers will play some point-drop zone, but play mostly on man-to-man and feel the matchups are more even this year.
That said, the Wildcats are talented and actually No. 10 nationally in 3-point shooting (39.8 percent), which is a major leap from last season, when they were No. 226 (33.1).
The freshmen have helped. Knight leads the team with 17.5 points per game. Jones is second at 16.5 and Lamb is at 13.0. Lamb shoots 47.2 percent from 3-point range (60-for-127) and Knight shoots 38.7 percent (38.7).
"They're three of the best freshmen in the country," Coach John Calipari said. "If there are five freshmen that are the best, they're three of them."
Still, Kentucky is 9-1 in its past 10 games and junior Darius Miller has scored in double figures in nine of the 10 games. He averages 11.3 points per game overall and shoots 45.9 percent from 3-point range (51-for-111).
"He's been really good," Calipari said. "These last two, three weeks, he's been as good as anybody. I told him at the beginning of the year, my vision for him was to be the best player in our league, and I don't know if he believed me, but I didn't change."
The fifth starter, 6-foot-10 Josh Harrelson, is a senior who had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the second-round victory against Princeton.
The Wildcats use six players mostly and the sixth, guard DeAndre Liggins, is a junior who started 26 games in the regular season, averages 8.7 points and is second on the team with 81 assists.
Miller played 26 minutes against WVU last year. He was 0-for-6 from the floor and had two points. Liggins played 18 minutes and had seven points and five rebounds. Harrelson didn't play.
"This group has more experience, really, when I think about it," Huggins said. "They've got some guys that have been around a while, understand probably a little bit better what Cal wants to do and to a degree maybe -- and I'm not in any way indicating they panicked a year ago, but you know what I mean -- they probably just stick to the course, probably kind of like our guys do. Our guys know to stick to the course. They've been around long enough and know what we want done."
No. 11 Kentucky was ranked No. 11 in the preseason and as high as No. 8 in the regular season. Swept by Florida in the regular season, the Wildcats beat the Gators in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"We're an inexperienced team," Calipari said. "My veteran players, they weren't the significant guys of a year ago. They've taken on new roles. This team has changed because DeAndre, Darius and Josh have challenged the rest of us and they've elevated themselves.
"The freshmen have been on a steady climb. I've had other young teams and really we gear everything toward this time of year, and we're just beginning to play our best. "
Mazzulla is the constant connecting last year's game and this year's team. He scored what was then a career-high 17 points last year against the Wildcats and made his first 3-pointer since November 2008. In Thursday's second-round victory against Clemson, Mazzulla had 12 points and seven assists.
"Obviously last year was a great experience, but that was last year," he said. "And like I said, it's a much different game this year and we're a different team, they're a different team, so it may not be the same result and we may not go about trying to win the game in the same way. We're just going to focus on what we have to do to try and win."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.