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March 23, 2010
Tournament Preview
Kentucky on a Roll

by John Gasaway

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East Regional
Log5 probabilities for the Sweet 16 are here.

Welcome to the region that supplied a good deal of the NCAA tournament's entertainment value. Whether your thing is one-seeds looking appropriately scary and invincible, long and athletic teams that D it up and attack the offensive glass, markedly talented but previously erratic teams at last finding their way, or, of course, the double-digit seed from the one-bid league laying waste to heavily favored power-conference teams every step of the way, the East has what you like.

Games in this region are being played at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY.

(11) Washington vs. (2) West Virginia (Thursday, 7:27)
Update (March 24). The news that West Virginia's Truck Bryant has a broken right foot and is done for the season throws a new light on my "no true point guard" lede. However, Bob Huggins has expressed confidence in Joe Mazzulla's ability to replace Bryant's minutes, and in this case the coach may not be simply whistling past the graveyard. Mazzulla's been on the floor for 74 possessions in the tournament and has recorded eight assists against just three turnovers. He'll have to watch his fouls with greater care now (he picked up four in 24 minutes against Missouri), but otherwise he should be fine.

Why isn't anyone saying West Virginia's doomed in this game because they have no "true" point guards? Rest assured, that's what will be said if the Mountaineers should lose this game in a points-deficient manner. My own belief is that the "lack of a 'true' point-guard" meme is just that, a meme. The ball doesn't know if it's being dribbled and passed by someone that fits a writer's preconceived notion of what a point guard should look like. In fact the ball couldn't care less. I recommend you make that your attitude as well.

The Mountaineers committed turnovers on just 17 percent of their possessions in Big East play this season. That's a lower figure than putatively guard-blessed teams like Villanova (19 percent), Georgetown (20), or, for that matter, Syracuse (21) were able to notch. Nor did this West Virginia team so woefully bereft of true point guards display undue difficulty in "getting into" their offensive sets. The men from Morgantown scored 1.12 points per trip against the Big East, a mark that was a hair better than that recorded by the aforementioned Orangemen. Bottom line: Lorenzo Romar does not have "NO TRUE POINT GUARDS!" written at the top of his game plan this week, even if writers in need of a quick and handy trope have it in their autotext.

What Romar does likely have at the top of his game plan, however, is keeping these Mountaineers off the offensive glass. Bob Huggins' group was easily the best offensive rebounding team in the Big East this year. Between Kevin Jones, Devin Ebanks, and Wellington Smith, a West Virginia player's main competition for an offensive rebound is a teammate as often as it is the opponent. This low-turnover high-offensive-rebound brand of offense, which is actually pretty rare (Texas has often been its best practitioner in recent years), is a necessity in Morgantown, because this team does not shoot the rock all that well. In this sense Da'Sean Butler's a perfect West Virginia synecdoche. He misses more than half his twos but he's decent from outside (35 percent), never turns the ball over, and makes plenty of visits to the line.

Huggins will see a couple similarities between his team and Washington. Like the Mountaineers, the Huskies are an athletic group that doesn't shoot all that well (New Mexico would beg to differ there), but that took very good care of the ball while leading their league in offensive rebounding this year. That being said and with all due respect to Butler, U-Dub will be able to claim possession of the best offensive weapon on the floor in the person of Quincy Pondexter. I am constitutionally skeptical of rote coastal-bias blather, but I will grant that if Pondexter had displayed his I-score-on-you-now brand of paint-attacking ball in the Big East he would never again have to hear his name pronounced as "Poindexter." (Which I heard as recently as Saturday's game against the Lobos.)

In theory Washington has a couple deficiencies that would seem to favor the favored Mountaineers. The Huskies were aberrantly foul-happy during Pac-10 play (we are talking Big 12-level fouling), and, mother of all red flags given the opponent, they're not all that great on the defensive glass. Then again the wondrous transformation that is ritually and reflexively said to have visited pretty much every team that makes it this far may actually be a plausible narrative for this group of Huskies, which hasn't lost a game since February 18 and which had to beat a very good Marquette team right at the top just to be here.

Two further thoughts. In the imbalanced Big East schedule West Virginia didn't get a road game at Syracuse this season, so whatever (highly) negligible advantage they might be said to possess due to the prior experience of playing basketball underneath a vast expanse of air-supported fabric will not be a factor here. And while I said earlier that Washington doesn't shoot particularly well and on paper the same is true of sophomore Elston Turner, I swear I am yet to see that kid miss a shot.

(12) Cornell vs. (1) Kentucky (Syracuse: Thursday, 9:57)
After a regular season in which they won games with superior defense, Kentucky fired a shot heard around the hoops-analysis world this weekend by scoring 90 points in 68 possessions against a pretty good ACC defense, one replete with relatively large high-major-type people. This explosion represented something new and undeniably impressive, even for a team that's already a one-seed sporting a 34-2 record.

So the case for Kentucky, in this game or indeed in this tournament, can be stated pretty succinctly. They already defend. Between DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, and Daniel Orton, they already tell you to forget about making twos. And they already make their own twos (Cousins and Patterson) while absolutely dominating their offensive glass (Cousins). If the Wake Forest explosion is repeatable and John Calipari starts to get dependably accurate shooting from John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, well, good luck rest of the field.

Cornell has been known to score a point or two in their own right these past few days, and for those wondering if they can do so against the "longer, quicker" Wildcats I would offer a reminder. Temple and Wisconsin might not be your cup of visual tea on offense, but there is no denying that those two teams know how to play some D. True, Kentucky's past record and the laws of hoops gravity unite to suggest that the Big Red can't possibly venture north of 1.40 points per trip again. Not to mention I conservatively estimate that Cornell big man Jeff Foote will have his shot blocked 175 times by this UK front line. But Foote will also draw some fouls, and Cornell's been in every game they've played in calendar 2010, save one. (At Penn. No, I don't pretend to understand it.)

A close game will of course be said in real time to favor Cornell ("The longer they hang around," etc.), but I'm not so sure. That's exactly what was being said on January 6 when the Big Red played at Kansas, and goodness knows Steve Donahue's team "hung around" for the full 40 in Allen Fieldhouse that night. Then in crunch time Sherron Collins did his thing. Time after time in the final minutes of that game Collins hurtled into the lane and flung himself into the nearest red uniform, a course of action which, wonder of wonders, was invariably interpreted as a violation on the part of the defense. (Scroll to the bottom of this play-by-play. I still remember the exasperated expression on Geoff Reeves' face after one such call.)

I can envision Wall doing that too. The likelihood is that he won't have to, but it's something to keep in mind if it comes to that.

John often refers to himself as a "true" hunt-and-peck typist on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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