Kentucky player to watch: Junior Darius Miller doesn’t get as much attention as freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, but he might have been UK’s most important player down the stretch. In the past 10 games, Miller is averaging 15.6 points. He had 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the Wildcats’ 59-57 victory over No. 13 seed Princeton in the second round on Thursday, after a solid performance in three games in the SEC tournament. At 6-foot-7, Miller is a tough defensive matchup for opponents. He can shoot from the perimeter, score off the dribble and post up in the paint. WVU coach Bob Huggins might assign John Flowers, his best defender, to guard Miller because he’s a three-way threat.
West Virginia player to watch: Senior guard Casey Mitchell is West Virginia’s leading scorer with 13.7 points per game, but he’s been noticeably quiet over the past few weeks. Mitchell scored only nine points on 2-for-8 shooting in a 67-61 loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament, and then had only four points on 2-for-6 shooting in an 84-76 win over Clemson in an NCAA second-round game on Thursday. Mitchell makes 37.8 percent of his 3-pointers, but he isn’t playing with much confidence right now.
Stat that matters: 1-8: Kentucky coach John Calipari’s record versus West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
Three things to watch:
1. West Virginia’s defense: The Mountaineers upset the Wildcats 73-66 in the Elite Eight last season, earning their first trip to the Final Four since 1959. West Virginia struggled to guard UK with a man-to-man defense early in the game, so Huggins switched to a 1-3-1 zone. UK never solved the zone, missing its first 20 3-point attempts before finishing 4-for-32 from behind the 3-point line. Of course, West Virginia had longer wing players like Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks to defend the perimeter a year ago.
“[Last year], a lot of their shots were contested, under duress from the 1-3-1,” Mountaineers guard Joe Mazzulla said. “We got them off of the 3-point line and probably a few steps back. That’s just what we’ve got to do tomorrow. We can’t let them get standstill shots and we can’t let them set their feet. If we can make them rush their 3-pointers, and if we can get a hand in their face, then hopefully it’ll be the same result.”
2. Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight: The UK point guard was one of the country’s best freshmen, leading the team with 17.5 points and 4.2 assists per game. But Knight has struggled from the floor over the past couple of weeks, shooting only 32.4 percent in his past six games. Knight hit the winning shot with two seconds left in the victory over Princeton, but missed his first seven shots in the game and never looked comfortable.
“At the beginning of the game [Thursday], guys around me were knocking down shots,” Knight said. “A lot of guys were finishing. Darius was on a roll. So at that point in the game, I didn’t really have to shoot the ball a lot. We were doing just fine.”
3. Kentucky’s bench: The Wildcats really use only six players, with five players averaging 30 minutes or more and senior Josh Harrellson playing about 28 minutes per game. Reserves Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood rarely leave the bench. West Virginia’s bench is about four players deep, as nine Mountaineers average 8.5 minutes or more. WVU’s reserves -- guards Mitchell, Jonnie West and Dalton Pepper and forward Deniz Kilicli -- combined for 28 points in the victory over Clemson.
Florida player to watch: Senior forward Chandler Parsons was named SEC Player of the Year without even leading the Gators in scoring. He was third on the team with 11.5 points per game, but led UF with 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. During the Gators’ 79-51 rout of No. 15 seed UC Santa Barbara in the second round, Parsons finished three rebounds short of recording a triple-double. In 27 minutes, he had 10 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.
UCLA player to watch: It’s impossible to miss freshman center Josh Smith, who is 6-10 and 323 pounds. The Washington native lost 40 pounds during the offseason and is averaging about 21 minutes per game. After playing off the bench during the past 10 weeks, Smith started against Michigan State on Thursday and had 14 points, three rebounds and two steals in the Bruins’ 78-76 victory.
“I think when you see somebody that big physically and that strong, the feeling is maybe they don’t move quite as well or they can’t jump as well,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “But he really does a terrific job moving his feet for a guy that size. I also think the other thing that makes him a special player is he’s got great hands. I think when balls are up on the glass, he’s going to grab it.”
Stat that matters: 0 -- Points scored in NCAA tournament games by UCLA’s players before Thursday night’s victory over Michigan State.
Three things to watch:
1. Malcolm Lee’s defense: The UCLA junior is one of the country’s best defenders and will gladly accept the challenge of slowing down Florida guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. In the Bruins’ narrow victory over Michigan State, Lee harassed Spartans senior Kalin Lucas throughout the game. Lucas missed his first 10 shots and had four turnovers. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting in his final college game. Lee is playing with a slight cartilage tear in his knee and even needed staples to close a wound on his scalp on Thursday night.
“I’ve said before I think Malcolm is the best defender at his position in the country,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
2. UCLA’s foul shots: The Bruins shot foul shots well at the end of the regular season, but their work at the foul line nearly cost them a victory over the Spartans on Thursday night. The Bruins made only 30 of 47 free ones against MSU, missing 13-of-28 in the second half. In the final 5 minutes, 19 seconds, UCLA went 12-for-22 from the foul line, which helped allow the Spartans to nearly come back from a 23-point deficit. The Bruins are shooting 68.1 percent from the charity stripe as a team, and forward Reeves Nelson and Smith are both shooting about 61 percent.
3. Florida’s experience: The Gators start three seniors, although they hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game until routing the Gauchos on Thursday night. The Bruins, who have been forced to rebuild after losing a boatload of players who helped them reach three straight Final Fours from 2006 to ’08, don’t have a senior on their roster. The Bruins sometimes make mistakes typical of young teams, like turning the ball over and missing foul shots. Can Florida’s veterans take advantage of UCLA’s youth?