By RICHARD CHEEKS
The Cats gave the good fight against Texas A&M on Saturday, falling to the Aggies 79-77 in OT. This game featured one of the most bizarre endings ever for a UK basketball game. However, the injury that Derek Willis sustained to his ankle is probably more important for this team than the bizarre ending that turned a likely win into the eventual loss.
Most concede that Derek Willis’ insertion into the starting lineup was the trigger that started the surge back into the SEC race and into the national championship conversation. Now Derek Willis is out of action. No one in a position to know is saying whether Derek Willis will be able to return to action before the end of this season.
So far this season, Tyler Ulis has played through a hyperextended elbow, and a bad turned ankle, Skal Labissiere has not been the player Coach Calipari expected and asked him to be, and Alex Poythress injured his knee. Other players have stepped up including Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries. Now the injury to Derek Willis presents Coach Calipari and his cohorts another challenge. “Next man up” has been the theme, and as recently as Monday evening on his radio call in show, Coach Calipari was repeating the theme. He suggests that Mychal Mulder or Charles Matthews will respond to the call.
The Cats will face Alabama at Rupp Arena tonight before heading out for the last road trip of the season, a critical two game swing through Nashville (Vanderbilt) and Gainesville (Florida). The critical goal for Alabama, beyond protecting the home court with a win, will be to find the answer to this most recent challenge in time to have the rough edges sanded down by Saturday’s encounter with the Commodores.
On Saturday morning, word around the program suggested that Alex Poythress may be able to return to action in time for the Vanderbilt game. Last night, Coach Calipari said Alex Poythress practiced on Sunday and Monday, in limited action, and it is possible Alex may be available for the Alabama game.
The Cats remained in first place in the SEC after Saturday’s loss because LSU fell at Tennessee. However, with Kentucky’s loss, the race tightened up considerably, with Texas A&M, LSU, and South Carolina all just one game back. LSU and Texas A&M hold the tie breaker against the Cats, while the Cats have the tie breaker against South Carolina.
Texas A&M is not likely to experience another loss, and will probably finish 13-5. Therefore, to secure the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament, the Cats must win out over these final 4 games. One loss to either Vanderbilt or Florida will be sufficient to end in a tie for first with the Aggies and the #2 seed.
The possible combinations of UK wins/losses and wins/losses by LSU, Florida, and South Carolina are too many to explore here, but suffice it to say the final standings in the SEC are far from determined if the Cats lose more than one more game down the stretch.
Alabama brings a 16-10, 7-7 SEC record into this encounter with the Cats. The Cats’ record now stands at 20-7, 10-4 in the SEC. Each team will be coming off a loss on Saturday. Alabama fell to Mississippi State by 6 in Tuscaloosa. However, that loss came on the heels of a five game winning streak that included consecutive wins over #21 Texas A&M by 1, at #36 Florida by 6, and at #66 LSU by 7. This Alabama team also can claim wins over #10 Wichita State by 4, #23 Notre Dame by 1, and #53 Clemson by 1.
ALABAMA has played its 26 games at an average tempo of about 68 possessions per game, scoring 67.6 ppg (0.993 ppp) and allowing an average 67.1 ppg (0.989 ppp). ALABAMA has turned the ball over on 20.4% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 18.4% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, ALABAMA has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 28.8%, and a defensive rebounding rate of 66.7%. The Alabama schedule has a strength of schedule of 0.6976 (#18).
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 70 possessions per game, producing 78.8 ppg (1.130 ppp) and allowing 67.5ppg (0.963 ppp). The Cats have committed turnovers on 16.9% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 18.4% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 38.0% and 68.4% on the offensive and defensive ends. The Cats have a strength of schedule of 0.6850 (#21).
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cats with a theoretical margin of 16 points, 78-62 in a game played at a pace of 69 possessions for the Cats and 69 possessions for Alabama. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 11 points, 73-62 at a pace of 65 possessions. Vegas opened with the Cats a 12 1/2 point favorite, and the Cats have moved to -13 ½ overnight.
See how other Big Blue Fans see this game’s likely outcome by clicking the following link.
You can enter your prediction at any time prior to tip off by visiting the 247 Sports prediction thread for this game at: