By RICHARD CHEEKS
Last Thursday, the Cats impressed with a huge road win at Arkansas. It was not simply the fact of the win that impressed so much as the manner of the win, which they accomplished with full effort from tip to final buzzer. Coming on the heels of an embarrassing loss at Auburn a few days earlier, the strong performance could have been simply another upward swing in a season marked by several wide swings from very good to very poor, repeating at least 4 prior times since the 6th game of the season.
The very strong performance at Arkansas, given the pattern of oscillation that has occurred could have been yet another harbinger of the team returning to the deep valley of poor performance. With a resurging Vanderbilt team due to arrive at Rupp Arena in just two days, analyst concerns about the likelihood of another subpar performance by this Kentucky team could not be ignored or discounted.
The ANE projected the game as a 1 point UK favorite, Pomeroy gave the Cats a 4 point advantage, and while Vegas opened in with a small line in Vandy’s favor, the betting pushed the Vegas line into the UK corner by game day. Yet, the projected margin was small. On Saturday afternoon, this UK team did not allow its play to decline on the heels of their strong showing at Arkansas. No, quite to the contrary, this UK team turned in its stronger single game performance of the year, beating Vanderbilt soundly, from start to finish, by 19 points.
I am reminded of how the 2011-12 team finished its season. Not many people will recall that the 2011-12 Cats started their season playing stronger than their pre-season projected efficiency for the first 5 games, and then the team’s performance level fell below average and remained below average from games 6 through 18. Then something unique occurred. Starting in game 19, and extending through game 30, the 2011-12 UK Wildcats took their game to a new level. As I watched the data emerge, game by game during this final 1/3 of the regular season, I recall describing it as a “surge”. The surge defined a new, significantly higher norm for the play of this team. The team finished the season through the post season maintaining that new standard.
Prior to the surge, the 2011-12 team’s performance was marked by regular oscillations between better than average and below average games. Peaks occurred in games 1, 3, 5, 11, and 15. Valleys occurred at games 2, 4, 6 through 9, 12 through 14, and 16 through 18. A pattern that is somewhat similar to how this team has managed its first 17 games.
Rhetorically, are we witnessing the beginning of a surge, similar to what the 2011-12 team accomplished from games 19 through 30? I believe it is entirely possible, but frankly two games does not a “surge” make. The Cats must sustain this newly found energy and efficiency for a substantial number of games beyond the two that are now on the books.
If this is the real deal, the beginning of a surge, then this team will demonstrate this by handling Missouri on Wednesday night, Kansas on Saturday, and the majority of the opponents remaining on this schedule with greater ease than the current analytical model would predict. This does not mean that additional losses will not occur, but if this trend is real, the number of losses will be much fewer than the 10 now projected for this team.
Missouri brings a 8-11 record, 1-5 in the SEC, into this meeting with the 15-4; 5-2 Wildcats. Missouri ended their non-conference schedule with a 7-6 record. They lost to #11 Arizona, #17 Xavier, and #40 Kansas State. However, they also lost to $118 Illinois. Missouri’s most impressive non-conference win was over #111 Nebraska Omaha by 7 at home. In the SEC, the only Missouri win came at the expense of #160 Auburn by 15 at home. Can there be little doubt that Missouri is the weakest team in the SEC this season despite the fact that they handled the same Auburn team that beat the Cats?
Missouri and Kentucky have not played a common non-conference opponent but have both played Arkansas and Auburn.
MISSOURI has played its first 19 games at an average tempo of about 69 possessions per game, scoring 67.8 ppg (0.982 ppp) and allowing an average 68.9 ppg (1.002 ppp). MISSOURI has turned the ball over on 17.5% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 17.1% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, MISSOURI has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 26.5%, and a defensive rebounding rate of 71.0%.
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 70 possessions per game, producing 77.4 ppg (1.106 ppp) and allowing 67.1 ppg (0.953 ppp). The Cats have committed turnovers on 17.6% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 19.1% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 39.6% and 69.7% on the offensive and defensive ends.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of Kentucky by 17 points, 79-62 in a game played at a pace of 69 possessions for the Cats and 70 possessions for Missouri. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 17 points, 78-67 at a pace of 67 possessions. Vegas opened this evening with the Cats favored by 17 ½ points, but within a few hours, the line has climbed to 20 points.
Coming back to the roller coaster theme as compared to the possibility of a surge occurring, if this team plays at its valley level, it will lose to Missouri on Saturday by 10 points or more, and if this team plays like the champions that the entire Big Blue Nation wants to see and expects, the Cats will beat Missouri by 10 points or more.