West Virginia vs. Kentucky
Opening Odds: KEN -13.5
Time: 10:17 PM EDT
This one won’t be a pretty game to watch. The Kentucky Wildcats are 13.5 point favorites over West Virginia in a game with a 136 over/under that will be aired on CBS just after 10 o’clock EDT.
Kentucky Wildcats sitting at a firm 36-0 this season, college basketball oddsmakers aren’t expecting the bottom seeded Hampton Pirates to have much of an impact on that ‘L’ column. Early college basketball odds showed the Wildcats as 12.5 point favorites in Sweet 16 action of the Midwest region.
Kentucky closed its season in strong fashion by sweeping through the SEC tournament. It added definitive punctuation by handing a 78-63 defeat to then-No. 21 Arkansas in the championship game, behind what may have been the best game of center Willie Cauley-Stein’s college career. He impacted the game tremendously on both ends of the court, eventually finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds (3 offensive) and two blocks in 30 efficient minutes, even knocking down 5 of 6 from the line as a notoriously poor free throw shooter. The seven-footer is expected to be a high first round pick in the 2015 NBA draft and will be looking to solidify his draft position in this tournament.
But Cauley-Stein is hardly the only Wildcat with something at stake here. Starting big man Karl-Anthony Towns is now projected to go No. 1 or No. 2 overall in June, and the talented freshman has been quietly dominant, if such a juxtaposition can be laced. In 19 minutes in the win over the Razorbacks, he shot 3 of 5 for eight points, four rebounds and two blocks. Defensively is where Towns may shine initially in the NBA, and opponents in this tournament are going to have a tough time penetrating the interior of the Wildcats’ defense. Moreover, the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, are both good tempo controlling guards who bring stability and control to this team, that should help the Wildcats avoid fizzling out against teams with dominant guard play.
It can be expected Coach John Calipari will begin now to tighten the rotation of a deep squad he has distributed the minutes to evenly all season. In the SEC championship game, only two Wildcats came off the bench to see significant action, and the bench produced just nine points on six field goal attempts. Trey Lyles, the Harrisons, Cauley-Stein and Towns are due to carry this team, though the depth can certainly come in handy in the event of either injuries or foul trouble.
None of that should matter against weaker opponents, and most especially not against West Vrignia But it will be vital as the tournament winds to its close. It also may give Cal the luxury of resting some of his stars during games that are likely in the Wildcats’ control.
West Virginia basically fell apart in its final regular season game, getting outscored by Baylor 42-34 in the second half. Jaysean Paige came off the bench to score 18 point and hit four threes, while the Mountaineers as a team knocked down 9 of 24 (37.5 percent). In addition to Paige’s explosion off the Mountaineers’ bench, it also got 18 points from forward Devin Williams.
Williams is the Mountaineers’ second leading scorer at 11.3 points per game while also snagging 8.2 boards per game. The 6’9” sophomore big man has improved greatly over his freshman campaign last year, shooting 3 percent better from the floor and increasing his scoring average by nearly three points per game. His free throw shooting leaves some to be desired, but the 69 percent he’s shot this season easily trumps the 57 percent brickfest from a year ago.
What may give WV problems is that its leading scorer Juwan Staten is nursing a leg injury, though he is listed as probable to play (and let’s be real, he will, this is March Madness). Staten averaged 14.5 points and 4.6 assists per game this season while knocking down 35 percent from three-point range. What is going to hurt WV is that it is a poor free throw shooting team at just 66 percent. With college basketball oddsmakers expecting this game to be a close one, the Mountaineers’ poor free throw shooting could spell the difference in a failure to cover the 12.5 point spread.