By RICHARD CHEEKS
Kentucky turned in another one of those outstanding overall game performances in the NCAA first round game against Stony Brook. No serious observer expected Stony Brook to bring the Cats’ season to an end, but few expected the Cats to take the Seawolves apart and lead by more than 30 points about midway through the second half (62-32). As a result, the Kentucky Wildcats posted the most impressive first round win of the first day of play, and served notice on the NCAA field that this team is a legitimate contender for the Championship.
The NCAA Selection committee once again has undervalued the strength of this UK basketball team with the 4 seed, and as a consequence, the committee placed the Indiana Hoosiers into a collision path with the Cats in the Tournament’s Second Round. For the basketball enthusiast, this is a classic March battle but it should have been scheduled to showcase on at least a Sweet 16 stage if not an Elite Eight stage. However, on Saturday evening, one of these two fine basketball teams will end its season prematurely for the quality of its season and team.
The Hoosiers and Cats have faced each other four prior times in the NCAA Tournament. Indiana beat Joe B. Hall’s first set of Wildcats in 1973, and the Cats have won the other three NCAA matchups against the Hoosiers. First, Joe B. Hall got the grandest form of revenge on his nemesis Bob Knight in 1975, ending Indiana’s run at an undefeated season and propelling the Cats to the Final Four. Then Joe B. Hall’s 1983 team defeated the Hoosiers in the NCAA. Finally, and most recently, the 2012 Cats avenged their only regular season loss by beating the Hoosiers by 12 in the Sweet 16 on their way to Kentucky’s eighth national championship. Saturday will be the fifth IU-UK NCAA meeting, and the stakes could not be higher.
As if the drama of a second round encountered between these two college basketball elite programs, each sporting to 15 teams this season is not enough, following the 2012 season, Coach Calipari determined that the traditional home-home regular season series with the Hoosiers was not in the Kentucky program’s interest, and discontinued the series. That decision attracted substantial criticism at the time, and now that the NCAA selection Committee has written a script requiring them to play at this time, all of the arguments from 2012 are being reopened.
These two teams do not arrive at this intersection by accident. Indiana opened the season with a #13 Pomeroy rating. Over the course of the season, their Pomeroy stock fluctuated between a high point of #12 and a low point of #31. On February 11, prior to their game against Iowa, the Hoosiers were #24, and since that time have won 7 and lost twice, at #3 Michigan State by 19, and to #52 Michigan by 3 in the Big 10 Tournament.
This season pattern is very similar to that of the Cats, who opened the season as Pomeroy’s #2 preseason team. The Cats enter this game as the #6 team, and over the course of this season, the Cats’ Pomeroy stock fluctuated between a high point of #1 to a low point of #30. On February 6, prior to Kentucky’s game against Florida, their Pomeroy ranking was #24, and since that game, the Cats have won 11 and lost twice, at #16 Texas A&M by 2 in OT and at #29 Vanderbilt by 8. The Cats won the SEC Tournament in route to the #4 Seed in the East in the NCAA Tournament.
Indiana brings a 26-7 record into this game. IU has played its 33 games at an average tempo of about 69 to 70 possessions per game, scoring 82.8 ppg (1.189 ppp) and allowing an average 69.1 ppg (0.992 ppp). Indiana has turned the ball over on 19.5% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 18.9% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, Indiana has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 37.6%, and a defensive rebounding rate of 71.3%. The Indiana schedule has a strength of schedule of 0.6161 (#73).
The Cats are 27-8, and over the last 13 games through which this team has reentered the national championship conversation, they are 11-2. Over these last 13 games, the Cats have averaged about 67 to 68 possessions per game, producing 82.7 ppg (1.234 ppp) and allowing 67.4 ppg (0.987 ppp). The Cats have committed turnovers on 13.0% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 15.9% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 35.8% and 65.5% on the offensive and defensive ends. The Cats have a strength of schedule of 0.7789.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cats with a theoretical margin of 9 points, 80-71in a game played at a pace of 68 possessions for the Cats and 69 possessions for Indiana. Pomeroy has this as a 2 point Kentucky favorite, 79-77, at a pace of 67 possessions. Vegas opens with UK a 3 point favorite.
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