No. 1 Kentucky is 36-0, the top overall seed in the tournament and four games away from history.
But Big Blue Nation should be a bit apprehensive going into Thursday’s Sweet 16 match-up against No. 5 West Virginia (25-9). Not scared, but apprehensive.
Why? Because Bob Huggins is 8-2 all-time against John Calipari. No coach in college basketball history has a better record against Calipari (minimum three games). Seven of those wins came when Huggins was at Cincinnati and Calipari was at U-Mass or Memphis.
How has Huggins been so successful against Coach Cal?
“Well, I think for a while I had a better team – and we’ve been lucky,” Huggins said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “We’ve won two games that I’m thinking about. One of them was we were kind of running the clock down, and we take a shot (and) miss it and we’re fortunate enough to rebound it. And I got a guy who thinks we’re leading at the time and we weren’t. It was tied.”
So instead of immediately going back up for the potential game-winning lay-up, this player brought the ball back out. He wound up making the game-winning shot anyway, but Huggins asked him afterward why he didn’t just put it back up immediately.
The player said he thought his team was ahead.
“I got a guy who doesn’t even know what the score was that wins the game for me,” Huggins said, amazed. “That’s pretty lucky.”
In another game, Huggins recalls former Cincinnati great Steve Logan making a “miraculous” shot to win the game for the Bearcats.
“I didn’t really have anything to do with either one of them, to be honest with you,” Huggins said. “That was just players making plays. Lucky, I guess. Sometimes that happens.”
Still, Huggins deserves at least a little credit for West Virginia’s win over Kentucky in the 2010 Elite Eight. The Wildcats – led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – entered the game 35-2 but missed their first 20 three-point attempts. Joe Mazzulla and Da’Sean Butler, meanwhile, combined for 35 points, helping the Mountaineers and their 1-3-1 zone to the Final Four.
Huggins said none of his players could stop Wall individually, so they went to the zone.
“They had a hard time with it,” Huggins said of the Wildcats, “so we played it the rest of the game.”
Looking at this year, Huggins and Calipari reportedly had a feeling they’d be in the same bracket.
“What am I supposed to do? Sit up there and talk abut how to guard the pick-and-roll?” Huggins asked. “There’s an element of truth to everything I say. The last three times we’ve both been in the NCAA Tournament, we’ve played each other. We’ve both been in the same bracket. It’s sort of ironic.”
If the Mountaineers pull off the upset Thursday, they’ll accomplish something that no one else has done this season: beat Kentucky.
Huggins said the keys will be offensive rebounding and staying out of foul trouble.
“The whole year, we have had to get more shots than our opponents,” Huggins said, “and if we don’t get more shots than our opponents, we struggle. We can’t put people at the foul line. If you look at the games we’ve lost, people have shot 35 to 45 free throws. We can’t do that. And you can’t control how close the officials call the game, but you can control not making dumb fouls, fouls that are avoidable. That’s what we continue to talk to our guys about. Don’t make unnecessary fouls. You’re going to get some fouls paying hard. I think anybody who’s ever played the game understands that.”
Huggins said his father always used to say, “How many fouls do you get?” Five, people would say. No, Huggins’ father corrected, you only get four; on the fifth one, you’re out of the game.
“When you star thinking about it in that context, you’re going to get a couple of fouls playing hard,” Huggins said. “Now you make a dumb one or two and you’re in serious foul trouble, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”