By RICHARD CHEEKS
Last week, the Cats lost Derek Willis to an ankle injury at Texas A&M, and then got Alex Poythress back from a knee injury on Tuesday. Alex Poythress picked up right where he had left off, and delivered an inside presence that the Cats needed in handling Alabama with greater ease than anticipated.
As the season enters the final three games, the Cats continue to hold the #1 spot in the SEC at 11-4, but the lead is tenuous because Texas A&M sits only 1 game back with a much more favorable finishing schedule than the Cats.
The Cats must finish the season with road games at #27 Vanderbilt today and at #43 Florida on Tuesday night before closing it out at Rupp the following Saturday against a reeling LSU team. A&M on the other hand closes with road games at #169 Missouri on Saturday and at #187 Auburn on Tuesday before closing at home against #27 Vanderbilt the following Saturday. A&M is favored to win out from here, while the Cats will not be favored on Saturday at Vanderbilt, and the trip to Gainesville to face a wounded team of Gators will be a dangerous situation.
The Cats must match A&M’s record over the final three games to claim the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament because one more loss than the Aggies will drop the two into a tie, and the Aggies earned the tie breaker last Saturday in that OT win over the Cats.
The SEC Tournament significance is the difference in 3 games in 48 hours instead of 3 games in 42 hours.
Vanderbilt could still be in the hunt for a first place finish if they can beat the Cats and the Aggies over the next 8 days, and the Cats also fall to the Gators. That scenario could set up a 3 way tie for first place. South Carolina could also end up in a tie for first if they win out by winning at Mississippi State, at Arkansas, and at home over Georgia. Everyone else in the league trails the Cats by 3 or more games with only 3 games to play.
All of the possible permutations that can occur over the last 3 games do not matter nearly as much as the need to take care of today’s business today. Today’s business is to get out of Nashville with a win over the Commodores. Vanderbilt brings a 17-11, 9-6 SEC record into this encounter with the Cats. The Cats record now stands at 21-7, 11-4 in the SEC, and in their first encountered at Rupp Arena on January 23, 2016, the Cats handled the Commodores with much ease, winning 76-57. Since that first game, Vanderbilt has won 6 and lost 3 times. The Cats have also won 6 and lost 3 since their first encounter with Vanderbilt, and the Cats have won 5 of their last 6 games.
VANDERBILT has played its 28 games at an average tempo of about 71 possessions per game, scoring 77.3 ppg (1.087 ppp) and allowing an average 67.2 ppg (0.949 ppp). VANDERBILT has turned the ball over on 16.8% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 14.5% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, VANDERBILT has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 27.0%, and a defensive rebounding rate of 70.7%. The Vanderbilt schedule has a strength of schedule of 0.6854 (#25).
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 69 to 70 possessions per game, producing 78.8 ppg (1.134 ppp) and allowing 67.0ppg (0.959 ppp). The Cats have committed turnovers on 16.6% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 18.4% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 38.0% and 68.8% on the offensive and defensive ends. The Cats have a strength of schedule of 0.6782 (#29).
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Commodores with a theoretical margin of 3 points, 74-71 in a game played at a pace of 70 possessions for the Cats and 70 possessions for Vanderbilt. Pomeroy figures the Game in Vanderbilt’s favor by 1 point, 74-73 at a pace of 67 possessions. Vegas opened with the ‘Dores a 1 1/2 point favorite.
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