Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup between the Wildcats and Mountaineers had plenty of storylines to begin with. Then West Virginia's locker room opened to the media.
"I give them their props," West Virginia's Daxter Miles told Brett Dawson of CatsIllustrated.com. "Salute them to getting to 36-0. But tomorrow they're gonna be 36-1."
The chatter would continue, with Miles - a freshman guard - not only saying "nobody is invincible," but also saying "they don't play that hard" of the Wildcats ahead of a Sweet 16 matchup. The top-seeded Cats (36-0) weren't there to hear it, but they surely heard about it soon after when their own locker room opened.
Karl-Anthony Towns mostly nodded quietly.
"I mean, everyone has an opinion," Towns said. "Just take it as you get, I guess. We've always been criticized for everything. So it's OK."
Willie Cauley-Stein, meanwhile, had a bit more vocal reaction. The player most agree to be the best defender in the country, known for his tireless energy in guarding post players and wing players alike, wasn't so sure about the play-hard critique.
"You've never even watched us play in person or you've never even watched us play people that are supposed to beat you and you end up beating them by 30, 40 points," Cauley-Stein said. "But we don't play hard? I mean--If you're playing against teams like UCLA, Kansas, that are good teams and you're able to do what we did to them without playing hard, imagine what we do playing hard. That's kind of my mentality."
Cauley-Stein has a point there.
UK has steamrolled through 36 games this season without a loss, staying atop the polls throughout and winning games by an NCAA-leading margin of 20.8 points per game. The Cats have won all five of their postseason games by double digits to boot, leading some to wonder why the Mountaineers would poke the bear that is Kentucky with anything other than respectful, boilerplate quotes.
Cauley-Stein knows better. He also doesn't mind.
"No, I expect them to say stuff like that," Cauley-Stein said. "I don't necessarily know a team that at this point wouldn't say something like that. That's good. Adds fuel to the fire. Puts a little personal stuff into it. It's all good stuff."
With an Elite Eight berth going to the winner, the stakes were already high enough, said Cauley-Stein. Now the Cats have something more to play for than just a win. Pride's on the line.
"Now I'm kind of juiced," Cauley-Stein said. "This game is going to be really fun. They made it kind of personal now."
The game, based on West Virginia's physical full-court defense and Kentucky's proven ability to deal with such a style, was already plenty compelling. With a little friendly back and forth added to the mix, CBS becomes the place to be at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday.
"It's just going to be one of them games, that I'm telling you, if you want to watch a good game, you're going to want to watch this game because dudes is lit," Cauley-Stein said. "Dudes is really ready to play."
Excited as the Cats might be to have a little fuel added to the fire, one thing is noticeably absent from any of their responses to questions about West Virginia's pregame predictions.
Trash talk of their own.
"We don't worry about that," Towns said. "You know what's the thing? It's usually always the people that are the best that say the least."
The Cats are happy to let their play speak for itself.
Kentucky was riding high, a No. 1 seed in the East Regional Finals looking to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. The only team standing in the way was the No. 2 seed in that region, West Virginia.
Played in a cold, wet and dreary Syracuse, N.Y., the Wildcats missed their first 20 3s against the Mountaineers, finishing just 4 of 32, and lost 73-66.
"To even be in the game 0-20, I must have had a hell of a team, which I did," UK head coach John Calipari said Wednesday.
Asked if he could take any lessons from that 2010 game, Huggins replied nonchalantly.
"If Cal promises to miss his first 20 3s like they did in 2010 that would help," he said, "if we could get him to do that."
On Thursday, Kentucky, again the No. 1 seed, will face fifth-seeded West Virginia for the third time in the last six NCAA Tournaments. While no member of either 2010 team is still playing, both schools' players have been reminded of the game.
West Virginia, being the victors that day, naturally have used the history lesson as a sense of pride and motivation.
"That's all we've been hearing all week, is the team that beat that team in 2010, but the reality is we play two different styles," West Virginia senior guard Juwan Staten said. "That team had a lot of size and they played a slower down game. But we're going to be in your face and we're going to be pressing. Ultimately that doesn't mean anything but it gives us a lot of motivation and a lot of confidence."
To put things in perspective, Harrison was just a freshman in high school at the time that game was played. UK's current freshman class was in its second semester of eight grade, preparing for the upcoming rigors of high school, and Devin Booker was just 13 years old.
Asked about it Wednesday, the Wildcats paid no mind to the game, pointing out that it was a different team entirely.
"I was probably playing basketball somewhere or doing something else while they were playing," Trey Lyles said.
"I know we didn't shoot the ball well, but other than that, that's all I really know," Aaron Harrison said about the game. "I liked DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall. I was a fan."
One current Wildcat who was watching the game was freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, only he was watching the Mountaineers more than the Wildcats.
"I was watching," Towns said. "Close friend of mine played for West Virginia, too. Da'Sean Butler."
Even still, with both rosters being entirely different, styles of play having changed, and much more, members of the Big Blue Nation remember the game all too well. On Coach Cal's weekly call-in show Monday, he was asked about the 2010 game before he could remind the caller that the Cats won one year later - and more recently - in the tournament.
Sometimes it's the most painful memories that linger, but the fact that the fans do remember that game and have reminded the players about it comes as no surprise to Lyles.
"I wouldn't say it surprises me, knowing Big Blue Nation and how they love basketball and stuff like that," Lyles said. "Every team was their best team so of course they're going to hold onto something like that and they just want us to beat a team, revenge them I guess."
You've got to spread them out, you need to hit a bunch of 3s, you need to score in transition, a physical team is one that can get the Wildcats out of their game, they said.
"They gotta run out (of strategies) eventually," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said prior to the Cats' round of 32 game versus Cincinnati. "They try everything. You got to though. You can't get mad at it. I would do the same thing."
Cincinnati's physical style of ball was the latest to go toe to toe with undefeated Kentucky. Like the 35 teams before the Bearcats, it proved to not be enough, though despite UK leading by 19 points with just over one minute left in the game, some believe the Bearcats actually exposed vulnerability in Kentucky.
Next up is No. 20/21 ranked and No. 5 seeded West Virginia, affectionately known as "Press Virginia" due to its full-court pressure defense applied on nearly every possession following both a made or missed basket.
The Wildcats have faced multiple teams that have applied their press to them this year, namely Louisville and Arkansas, but many believe yet again that this may be the formula to finally crack the as-of-now unbreakable Kentucky will.
"We know that they're going to play hard and it's going to be a physical game, and we have been preparing for that all weekend," freshman guard Devin Booker said.
Preparing for it and facing it are two different items, however. Against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament championship, Kentucky excelled against the Razorbacks' press, scoring 78 points and cruising to victory in the second half.
In that game, Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis combined for eight assists to just one turnover, and showed how effective two point guards on the floor simultaneously can be against a press.
"With two point guards in most of the game it's hard to press us," Tyler Ulis said. "(Andrew Harrison) can get the ball, I can get the ball, Aaron and Book can also handle the pressure, and Trey (Lyles). It's hard to press us, and then once we get in the open court it's lobs."
Over the last five games, the two point guards have proven to be especially effective, distributing 37 assists to just 10 turnovers (3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio). Still, West Virginia, which leads the nation in turnovers forced and steals, didn't think its press would be rendered ineffective against the Cats Thursday and that eventually it would take its toll on Kentucky physically.
"I mean, everybody that we play, their guards, they can break the press - I mean at the beginning of the first half they might be making good decisions but then they don't realize they don't have enough depth on their bench and the second half is going to catch up," West Virginia senior guard Gary Browne said. "Sometime during the game we can see it. We get real excited when things like that happen. I feel like the whole bench, the whole team can realize that and that's when we know, we go harder and more aggressive."
Browne's senior backcourt mate Juwan Staten echoed his sentiments on wearing the opponent down, saying the Mountaineers were the best conditioned team in the country, and used West Virginia's tough, physical practices as an example.
"Why wouldn't it (work)?" Staten said. "We've been playing this way all year, we've had success against everybody no matter what style or what type of players they have. That's the only way we play and it's just up to us to make it work."
Similar to its bordering state to the east, Kentucky has worn teams down all season as well, typically occurring midway to late in the second half, as evidenced in gritty road wins at Florida, LSU and Georgia, as well as Saturday's third-round NCAA Tournament victory over Cincinnati. Kentucky has also talked about the excitement of seeing the opposition begin to wither under fatigue.
"It will be different because we have nine guys (Coach Cal) plays, rotating in and out, two point guards, a lot of people who can handle the ball so that's going to be a little bit different with the rotation and stuff like that," Ulis said.
Another advantage for Kentucky in attacking West Virginia's press will be the Wildcats' size. Kentucky's starting lineup stands at 6-foot-6, 6-6, 6-10, 6-11 and 7-0. The Cats also have three players coming off the bench standing at 6-6, 6-9 and 7-0. By comparison, West Virginia's starters are 6-1, 6-1, 6-3, 6-7 and 6-9.
"I don't know what you do about that," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. "I've thought about that, but I haven't really come up with an answer."
"Sometimes you can't dribble around the press, so it's good for them to be able to pick it up and look over defenders, step through presses and stuff like that," Ulis said.
One seemingly distinct advantage of the press for Kentucky is that it speeds up the game and the Wildcats have flourished in fast-paced games. Of the seven games Kentucky has played ending in regulation that have featured 70 or more possessions, the Wildcats have outscored their opponents by 34.0 points per game. West Virginia, for its part, has played in 13 such games and has the 29th-fastest adjusted tempo in the country, according to KenPom.com.
"I think we enjoy just playing, period," Aaron Harrison said. "In fast-paced games - yeah, I do think we enjoy fast-paced games."
Now, West Virginia's method of answering the question that no team has been able to answer will be put to the test. How do you beat Kentucky? The Mountaineers say it's all about their press, and Coach Cal says they won't stray away from that Thursday.
"I said what (Huggins has) done with this team, incredible," Calipari said. "And again, he's taken kids, they've gotten better individually and they've come together and say here's the style we can win with, and that's how they're playing and they won't get away from it, that's who they are. The players now have taken great pride in it."
The two coaches share a close bond, so after Calipari came to a fundraiser for the cancer center at West Virginia, Huggins had to repay the favor when Calipari asked him to speak at a clinic in Kentucky.
Huggins went in blind, knowing only that plenty of UK fans would be in attendance. So consider his surprise when he asked Calipari what he should discuss with the crowd.
"He says, '1-3-1, everybody wants to know how to beat the 1-3-1,' " Huggins said. " 'They know I didn't figure it out so they want everybody to do it.' "
It hadn't been long since West Virginia's quirky zone defense had flummoxed UK into 4-of-32 3-point shooting and an Elite Eight loss in 2010 and the wounds were still fairly fresh. Calipari just didn't much care.
"You've got to have a lot of self-assurance to, you know, bring somebody in to talk about a 1-3-1," Huggins said. "... But that's Cal. He's been a very dear friend."
The two dear friends will match wits again on Thursday at approximately 9:45 p.m. in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. Top-seeded Kentucky carries a perfect 36-0 mark into the Sweet 16, while Huggins' fifth-seeded Mountaineers (25-9) are an overachieving bunch that, per usual, match the character of their coach.
"I've always respected what he does coaching his basketball teams, how hard they play, how physical they play, how they rebound," Calipari said.
Huggins had similar respect for Calipari as a coach, praising the work he's done to shape a group of young, talented players into the best defensive team in the country, but it's the man he's gotten to know away from the court Huggins really respects.
"He's more than a basketball coach," Huggins said. "Somebody asked me what separates Cal from other coaches, and Cal and I have gone to Europe together and done a bunch of things. And I say, well, most other basketball coaches aren't getting on a plane and read U.S. News and World Report or Money Magazine or those kind of things. Cal is a very diverse guy and I think he's kept things, I think, in a very good perspective. He's a great family guy, just, and he's been a good friend."
It's a friendship that started years ago.
Huggins says the two were introduced while he was a player at West Virginia and Calipari in high school, while Calipari says it was a few years later when Huggins had recently been named head coach at Walsh College. Regardless which is true, they've grown close over the years, sharing similar backgrounds - Calipari grew up in Moon Township, Pa., less than 80 miles from Huggins' hometown of Morgantown, W.Va. - and have moved through the coaching ranks since.
Over the course of their careers, Huggins has an 8-2 record against Calipari, the best of any coach who has faced him at least three times. Seven of Huggins' wins came while Calipari was at Memphis or UMass.
That history has become a part of regular conversation between Calipari and Huggins, and it's even spread to extended families, as evidenced by the pair's favorite story.
It was in 2002. Huggins was at the Pittsburgh airport when he started to sweat and experienced shortness of breath. An ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital and Huggins was in and out of consciousness as he had a heart attack. At one point when he came to, the paramedic tending to him revealed why he was taking such good care of Huggins.
"So I came to and I was fairly coherent at that time and he said, 'Coach, listen, I can't let you die, I'm John Calipari's cousin, and you can't die until we beat you at least once,' " Huggins said.
Huggins would of course live and return to coaching, and Calipari has gotten two wins against him, including one in the 2011 NCAA Tournament to avenge that 2010 defeat. But come Thursday evening, that's irrelevant.
"When you're playing in these games, none of the past matters," Calipari said. "Whether I was 12-0 against a coach, it doesn't matter, this is a one-game shot."