SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Quick thoughts on the lead up to the East Regional title game 7 p.m. Saturday at the Carrier Dome:
Both teams expect a physical game, as physical as either has played this season. One of the first things I was asked in the locker room Friday by a Kentucky official was, "Where will the officials be from?" Who knows, but how they call the game could be interesting.
West Virginia’s Da'Sean Butler jokingly said he doesn’t need a last-possession game because he’s itching to take another last-second shot. But he wouldn’t mind. He loves it. He reminisced about being an only child and taking the last-second shots in front of his “hood” all the time, changing the score, saying there was more time left and always redoing until he really made the shot. Big Shot Butler has been quiet since the Big East tournament title game because West Virginia hasn’t needed his services in the final possession.
West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks announced he will draw Kentucky’s John Wall on a defensive assignment. He said that his length could be a problem for Wall and he has defended smaller guards in the past. I concur. I saw it when Ebanks gave Texas A&M issues in the Anaheim Classic in November. Ebanks said the quickest player -- or rather, toughest guard -- he has had to defend this season was Connecticut’s Jerome Dyson.
West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla has been much more aggressive of late taking the ball to the basket. He didn’t seem to wince as he has in the past with his shoulder ailing him throughout the season. Mazzulla isn’t as much of a driving liability offensively. No one is going to expect him to shoot and Kentucky would likely slack off guarding him. But Mazzulla knows this and won’t put himself in position to take a 3-pointer.
Kentucky freshman DeMarcus Cousins and Wall both said this is what they came for, to get to a Final Four. The goal has never wavered with these freshmen. Cousins also said rather candidly that he and Wall were going to be a package deal no matter where they landed and even tossed out NC State as a possible destination. That’s a bit of a surprise since Wall was always on the Wolfpack target being from Raleigh, but Cousins wasn’t necessarily on the radar from Alabama.
Local Syracuse fans tended to stay away Thursday night. I’ll be interested to see how many return Saturday night to fill up the Carrier Dome with the Orange now dispatched from the tournament.
A number of Kentucky officials said Kentucky fans spent thousands of dollars -- in the $2000 to $4000 range -- to go to the SEC tournament in Nashville and that’s one reason Kentucky fans have passed on going to New Orleans and now to Syracuse with the possibility of driving to Indianapolis next weekend.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins went with Casey Mitchell in the starting lineup against Washington. Not sure if he’ll do the same against Kentucky.
Deniz Kilicli should have some interesting tussles with Cousins in the low post. Kilicli has been highly productive in the limited minutes and Huggins might use him more in this game with the slew of big bodies the Wildcats can toss at the Mountaineers.
Huggins and John Calipari continue to be miffed with Kentucky and West Virginia being in the same bracket -- the lone 1 vs. 2 game remaining. Remember, Kentucky was the second No. 1 seed and West Virginia was said to be the first No. 2 according to Dan Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director and chair of the selection committee.
Ebanks and others said they could look at this as a mini national championship game. It could. I think it will be the best of the Elite Eight. I know I’m not stepping too far out on a limb to say that at all.
Kentucky’s Patrick Patterson was in his glory discussing how things have changed at Kentucky in a year. It’s really amazing to see how the Wildcats' returnees are relishing in being on the verge of a Final Four after the chaos of a year ago. It’s one of the more remarkable turnarounds of a high-major program that I’ve ever seen. A year ago Kentucky seemed headed for an abyss and now it’s a steam train that isn’t stopping.