This weekend is set up to crackle in regard to WVU men’s basketball.
On Friday, the sold-out Bob Huggins Fish Fry, featuring Kentucky coach John Calipari, will take place at the Mylan Park Community Center to raise funds for cancer research. On Saturday, ESPN’s College Gameday, featuring Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams, will hit the Coliseum for the 11 a.m. show.
Then the main event will be the Kentucky at No. 7 WVU contest, part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, at 7 p.m. Saturday.
It’s a challenge, by the way, the Big 12 hasn’t lost in the event’s previous four years of existence.
In its first year, 2014, the conference won 7-3. In subsequent years it was 6-4 and 7-3 before tying at five games apiece last season. All-time, the Big 12 leads 25-15.
What’s always certain, however, is the questioning of timing of the event. Participants must step away from conference play.
“I’d rather it not be in the conference season,” said WVU’s Huggins on Thursday. “But obviously ESPN wants it in the conference season, so … I think the [question] is, do we play it when a bunch of football bowls are going on or do we do play it when everybody is tuned into college basketball? I think that was the overriding reason why we moved it from December.”
UK coach John Calipari said he’d love to see the SEC win for once, but pointed to considerations.
“It would be good, but I don’t think it affects [the SEC reputation] because some of it is where you’re playing games,” Calipari said. “The Big 12 is really good. What are the matchups? There could be matchups in our favor and that doesn’t mean the Big 12 is not strong. There could be a bunch of them in their favor because of who is on the court and healthy.
“Look, both leagues are really strong this year. I would say if you look at the [Rating Percentage Index] and all the other things, [they’re] probably the best two leagues. We’re playing this thing and it’s great for TV and all those things and it comes in the middle of league play … I’m not sure how it will play out. But you know what? It’s next on the schedule.”
The Big 12 was ranked No. 1 in the RPI on Thursday, while the SEC was No. 4. The Big East and ACC were 2-3. Kentucky was ranked No. 18 at 15-5, while West Virginia was No. 24 at 16-4.
Pals Cal and Huggs
As always, part of the Kentucky-West Virginia story line will center on the friendship between Calipari and Huggins.
“We met a long time ago, basically through Joe Fryz,” Huggins said. “They played together in high school.”
Fryz and Calipari played at Moon High School in the Pittsburgh area. Huggins and Fryz played together at WVU, where the latter was a team captain in 1979-80. (Fryz died of ALS last June.)
“We got to be pretty good friends,” Huggins said of Calipari. “I’m older than what Cal is, but I’d see him at Five-Star [camps]. Or we’d spend time [together] on the road. We’ve done seemingly hundreds of charity events together. We’ve had a great relationship since the ’70s.”
According to TV analyst and former coach Fran Fraschilla, Calipari signed 200 basketballs this week to help raise money for Huggins’ cancer fund.
Both Huggins and Calipari, on separate teleconference calls, spoke of their teams’ difficulties applying pressure this season.
“Not very good right now,” Huggins said of WVU. “We haven’t played near as well as we have before. We just … I don’t know what we are to be honest with you. We try to disrupt people as best we can.”
The Mountaineers are now forcing opponents into an average of 19.1 turnovers. That’s only down an average of one per game from last season.
Kentucky is forcing teams into an average of 12.5 per game.
“This year for us, we’re just so young that the way you have to trust each other, the way you have to talk, the mental toughness you have to have to sustain a full possession, to be that team, you have to be a great rebounding team,” Calipari said. “Which means you have to play people before the ball hits the rim. And young kids don’t have that discipline yet.
“You’ll see veteran teams out there that do have that discipline. It’s just harder when you have young teams. But it’s doable because we’ve done it before. It’s just when does it catch? When do they grasp it and understand?”
The oldest projected starter for Kentucky in Saturday’s game is redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo.
n WVU’s James “Beetle” Bolden aggravated a strained groin on the last play of the first half of the Mountaineers’ loss to TCU, but Huggins said Thursday he “assumes” the guard will be ready for Saturday’s game.
n When asked how his players can improve on their recent shooting woes, Huggins said, “Shoot it more, I guess. I think everybody goes through it. We have to get more shots up in practice or they need to get in the practice facility more on their own.”
n Calipari is still trying to work in 6-foot-9 freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, one of six 5-star recruits he signed in 2017. Vanderbilt had a foot injury to start the season and has but 12 points in three games back. “We’d like to get Jarred up to 15, 18 minutes if he can,” said the UK coach. “We have to figure out some things offensively for him, where he’s comfortable.”
n Calipari complained a bit about the SEC’s standing in polls and perhaps pointed to WVU, which has lost three games of late but stands at No. 7 in both polls.
“The only thing that kind of gets me is we have a couple teams lose and all of a sudden they start dropping like rocks,” said the Wildcats coach. “In other leagues they lose two or three in a row and it really doesn’t affect you. That’s the dregs from the old SEC. That’s just the dregs.”
Kentucky is no longer in the Associated Press Top 25.
“The other day we lost to South Carolina, which just went to Florida and won,” Calipari said. “Wait a minute. What? We have really good teams in this league with really good coaches. Dudes are performing. And there are no bad teams in this league — none. [South Carolina coach] Frank Martin and I were talking the other day. He said, ‘Cal, there’s no game when we can walk in, play bad and still win.’ No. You’re losing.”