West Virginia native Patrick Patterson leads Kentucky against his home-state team
Saturday, March 27, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Throughout the state of West Virginia, where the Mountaineers' athletic programs could almost qualify as religion, residents will cheer for second-seeded West Virginia to beat top-seeded Kentucky in the NCAA tournament's East Region final on Saturday.
But in one pocket of the state along the Ohio border, fans will root for Kentucky -- or more specifically, they'll root for Wildcats junior forward Patrick Patterson, who is from Huntington, W.Va.
"For the most part, we'll be rooting for Patrick Patterson," said Huntington High School Athletic Director Bruce Senior, whose son played AAU basketball with Patterson. "And if you spend any time with him -- extended time -- you'll root for him, too."
As a McDonald's all-American in 2007, Patterson chose between some of the nation's top programs. As he was narrowing the schools he considered -- the list at one time featured Kentucky, Florida and Duke, among others -- then-West Virginia coach John Beilein left for Michigan. By the time Bob Huggins was hired, Patterson favored Kentucky.
"I called," Huggins said, "but it was too far down the road."
Some of West Virginia's veteran players such as senior forward Wellington Smith and fourth-year junior guard Joe Mazzulla remember Patterson visiting Morgantown and the hype associated with him. Smith believes Patterson would have been perfect for the Mountaineers.
Instead, Patterson went to Kentucky, where he starred for two seasons under former coach Billy Gillispie but never won an NCAA tournament game. He had career averages of 17.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and considered leaving Kentucky for the NBA following last season.
After the Wildcats hired John Calipari last March, Patterson told Calipari he was returning to Kentucky for three reasons: to graduate in three years, to play in the NCAA tournament and to play in Calipari's system.
"I really try not to think if Gillispie had still been here or had any other coach got the job, would I still be here," Patterson said, when asked if he would have returned if the new coach was not Calipari. "I just know that he got the job and I came."
By returning to Kentucky, Patterson needed to accept not only a different coach and playing style, but almost an entirely different team. Calipari brought a decorated recruiting class that included point guard John Wall and center DeMarcus Cousins, two of the best players in the country. Patterson was no longer the top attraction.
He also needed to play on the perimeter in Calipari's offense. At 6 feet 9 and 235 pounds, Patterson was an interior player the past two seasons. On the first day of preseason practice, he worked with the guards and not the big men. He's attempted 65 three-pointers this season after shooting only four in the previous two years.
His statistics have dropped -- Patterson averages 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game this season -- but Calipari suggests he's a better NBA draft prospect. He pointed to a recent conversation with Washington Wizards assistant coach Randy Wittman, whom Calipari said raved about Patterson's versatility.
"He could have come back and said, 'This is my team and I'm shooting all the balls, I decided to come back,' " Calipari said. "Well, guess what he does? He scores less points, gets less rebounds and his stock has gone through the roof."
Kentucky defeated West Virginia last season, and Patterson had 15 points and 10 rebounds. But Saturday's game will be vastly more important, as the Mountaineers will be playing for their first trip to the Final Four since 1959 against a team led in part by the player who got away.
"The tradition and the history here at Kentucky is a lot different, just because of the national championships, all-Americans, Elite Eights, Sweet 16s, Final Fours and SEC championships," Patterson said. "That's the only difference. Kentucky's got a lot more wins and a lot more history. But the passion, the fans' interactions with the team, the fans traveling for the team, the support -- that's all the same. They have just as crazy fans as we do here at Kentucky."