By RICHARD CHEEKS
During the off season, much chatter focused on an anticipation that the 2015-16 Kentucky Wildcats would again compete in the final four. We recall all of the arguments. Coach Calipari has another #1 or #2 group of incoming players. Coach Calipari has led his youngsters to four final fours in six years, and won a championship. There will not be any dominant team or teams in the land in 2015-16 like there was in 2014-15. However, amidst all of this optimistic talk, early November did arrive, and in an Olympic manner, all proclaimed, “Let the games begin.”
And, the games began with Kentucky looking impressive in its first three games including an impressive early season win over a highly regarded Duke team in Chicago. Through those early games, these Cats played at a level of efficiency worthy of all the pre-season praise and expectation. However, Coach Calipari declared shortly afterwards that his team was still developing and there are many teams playing better basketball that his Cats. Blah, blah, blah …. Coach Calipari engaging in his usual brand of coach speech. However, over the next five games, the quality of play that this team showed steadily declined, leading to the embarrassing loss at UCLA.
Oh, but wait, the Cats bounced back after UCLA to post a pair of strong showings, and perhaps UCLA was just an aberration of a young team in its first true road game. Then the team looked as bad against Ohio State as they had at UCLA. But, they beat a very strong UL team and stormed past Ole Miss in their SEC opener. Then, at Baton Rouge, this team turned in one of the poorest games in recent memory, losing to a mediocre LSU team by 22 points. They rebounded to beat Alabama, and then blew sizable second half leads against Mississippi State and Auburn, losing the Auburn game.
Thursday night, this team showed a level of resilency that epitomizes the roller coaster ride that the first 18 games of this season has become. Deep valleys in games 8, 11, 14, and 17, and impressive peaks at games 10, 13, 15, and in game 18.
Please make no mistake that the average level of performance established by this oscillating pattern is the lowest of any of Coach Calipari’s UK teams. Even without the large swings in personality game to game, this team would not be a national contender this year, or any year. Furthermore, at the valleys this team is showing, they cannot beat the little sisters of the poor. However, make no mistake, at the peaks, this team is playing championship level basketball. That is true of its first three games, and is true for its games against Ole Miss, Alabama, and Arkansas. It is also true of its wins over UL and Duke.
I am reminder of the old, but great TV game show, “To Tell The Truth” and rhetorically ask, “Will the true UK Wildcats please stand up?” My wish is that Coach Calipari can find the secret formula that has produced those peaks, bottle it, and feed it to his players for the remainder of this season. If he can, then this team will be formidable come March.
The Cats face a new challenge on Saturday afternoon. They must travel home from Arkansas, and be prepared for another very difficult basketball game by 4 pm on Saturday afternoon. That is when the stripes will toss the ball in the air for the Cats first meeting with Vanderbilt this season.
Vanderbilt brings a 11-7 record, 3-3in the SEC, into this meeting with the 14-4; 4-2 Wildcats. Vanderbilt opened their season with five consecutive wins, before tasting defeat for the first time against #10 Kansas in Hawaii by 7 points. After a win over #185 Detroit, the Comodores lost Luke Kornet to injury. During the time that Kornet was recovering, Vanderbilt lost 6 of their next 8 games, losing at #22 Baylor by 2, to #45 Dayton by 5, at #9 Purdue by 13, and losing their first 3 SEC games to #65 LSU and at #65 Arkansas and at #40 South Carolina.
Well, Mr. Kornet has now returned to action, and Vanderbilt has won its last three games, beating #153 Auburn by 14, #85 Alabama by 8, and at #89 Tennessee by 14. The Commodores will enter Rupp Arena with a confidence revived by Kornet’s return, and their team’s return to their early season winning ways. Even with a total of seven losses, Vanderbilt’s most embarrassing loss was to #65 LSU by 8 without Luke Kornet. However, on the other side of their ledger,Vanderbilt’s most impressive win came at the expense of Stoney Brook by 7 in OT.
Vanderbilt and Kentucky have not played a common non-conference opponent but have both played LSU, Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama.
VANDERBILT has played its first 18 games at an average tempo of about 72 possessions per game, scoring 78.9 ppg (1.094 ppp) and allowing an average 65.8 ppg (0.914 ppp). VANDERBILT has turned the ball over on 16.8% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 15.8% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, VANDERBILT has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 26.4%, and a defensive rebounding rate of 71.2%.
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 70 to 71 possessions per game, producing 76.9 ppg (1.094 ppp) and allowing 67.6 ppg (0.956 ppp). The Cats have committed turnovers on 17.9% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 19.1% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 40.4% and 69.5% on the offensive and defensive ends.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of Kentucky by 1 point, 73-72 in a game played at a pace of 71 possessions for the Cats and 71 possessions for Vanderbilt. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 4 points, 73-69 at a pace of 69 possessions.
Coming back to the roller coaster theme, if this team plays at its valley level, it will lose to Vanderbilt 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 Vanderbilt by 10 points or more. That is the nature of the roller coaster ride that this team has been having.
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