By RICHARD CHEEKS
Certainly, the Cats’ loss at Vanderbilt was costly to their hopes of another solitary finish at the top of the SEC, but the Cats remain in control of their own destiny with respect to earning a share of the championship. They must win their final two games, at Florida on Tuesday, and then for Senior Day at Rupp next Saturday afternoon. The Cats can still claim sole possession of this title, but to do so, the Cats must not lose AND Texas A&M must fall to Vanderbilt next Saturday in College Station.
The real question about Tuesday will be whether these Cats have enough fuel in their tank to put Florida away and then stay on top when the final horn sounds. That was not the case this past Saturday at Vanderbilt. The Cats played from the lead for nearly all of the first half, but the Commodores closed the half strong, reducing the lead that had been 8 points, 38-30, with 2:23 remaining to only 3 points, 39-36 at the half. When the second half started, the Cats showed a hint of renewed energy, but that only lasted 2 minutes and 10 seconds when Isaiah Briscoe made a layup to put the Cats on top by 7 points, 45-38. From that point to the end, the Commodores outpaced the tired, shorthanded Cats 36-17.
The Vanderbilt players said after the game that they “wore down Kentucky” and it is certainly hard to argue the point given the pattern that defined this game. However, Marcus Lee admitted that he and Alex Poythress “totally zoned out” and while Marcus could not offer a plausible explanation for this, many observers recall that this is not the only game that one or both of these “experienced” members of this team has only made cameo appearances in games this season. With Derek Willis missing, the impact of the “zone out” in Nashville is exaggerated.
It appeared that Coach Calipari was as frustrated by the way his Cats performed Saturday as he has been willing to reveal publically heretofore. When asked about why Alex Poythress seemed to disappear after such a strong performance against Alabama, Coach Calipari snapped, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him.” When asked about Derek Willis’ condition, he snapped, “I don’t know. Maybe he will take a picture of his ankle and let you know.”
These deflections seemed unusual, revealing a frustration level that Coach Calipari rarely allows to emerge in public view.
The SEC race remains unclear. Texas A&M and Kentucky are 1 game ahead of Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and LSU. These five teams are fighting for the 4 double byes in the SEC tournament, and it appears that Mississippi State, Tennessee, Auburn and Missouri have secured the bottom 4 positions, leaving Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to fight it out using a host of tie breaking criteria for positions 6 through 10 in the SEC Tournament seedings. Kentucky closes with LSU, and Texas A&M closes with Vanderbilt, giving LSU and Vandy an outside chance to still claim a part of the SEC regular season title. South Carolina needs that help, plus wins over Georgia and at Arkansas to earn a share.
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.
None of this matters if the Cats can get out of Gainesville with their 4th road win of the SEC season on Tuesday night. Florida brings a 17-12, 8-8 SEC record into this encounter with the Cats. The Cats record now stands at 21-8, 11-5 in the SEC. In their first encountered at Rupp Arena on February 6, 2016, the Cats handled the Gators with much ease, winning 80-61. Since that first game, Florida has won 2 (over #86 Mississippi by 5, and at #79 Georgia by 4) and lost four times, including their last 3 games. Against the top 5 SEC teams, the Gators have been 1-6, and their only win came on January 9 against #73 LSU by 6 in Gainesville. At home this season, the Gators have dropped three games, including their last two appearances at the O Dome. The Cats have also won 4 and lost 2 since their first encounter with Florida, but without Derek Willis, the Cats have dropped 2 of their last 3 games.
FLORIDA has played its 29 games at an average tempo of about 70 to 71 possessions per game, scoring 73.6 ppg (1.041 ppp) and allowing an average 67.9 ppg (0.963 ppp). FLORIDA has turned the ball over on 16.6% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 18.7% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, FLORIDA has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 33.8%, and a defensive rebounding rate of 70.6%. The Florida schedule has a strength of schedule of 0.7162 (#12).
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 69 to 70 possessions per game, producing 78.2 ppg (1.130 ppp) and allowing 67.2ppg (0.963 ppp). The Cats have committed turnovers on 16.3% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 18.0% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 37.5% and 68.9% on the offensive and defensive ends. The Cats have a strength of schedule of 0.6882 (#26).
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cats with a theoretical margin of 1 point, 72-71 in a game played at a pace of 70 possessions for the Cats and 70 possessions for Florida. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 2 points, 72-70 at a pace of 68 possessions.
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