By RICHARD CHEEKS
Rarely, if ever, will I find the subjective wire service polls have it right while analytical models such as my ANE model, or Pomeroy not so much. However, this is one of those times and want to explain why I believe this is happening. First, a short recap of the first six games. The Cats have beaten their first 6 opponents by an average of 28 points, and their closest margin so far has been the 21 point defeat they handed Michigan State at MSG. No UK team since 1947-48 team has dominated its first 6 opponents by 21 or more points in each game.
Yes, that was a different era, but consider the many great UK basketball teams since 1948 that were not able to match this start. The 1949 National Champions did not do it. Ditto for the 1951 National Champions or even the undefeated 1954 Cats. The 1957 National Champions did not start this well, and neither did Coach Rupp’s favorite team, the Runts in 1966. Dan Issel’s senior team in 1970 could not do it. Joe Hall’s great team in 1975, 1977, 1978 and 84 did not start like this. Eddie Sutton’s best UK teams in 1986 and 1988 fell short of this mark. None of Pitino’s great teams did this, not even the gold standard 1996 National Champions, and their younger brothers in 1997. Only the 2004 Tubby Smith team managed to start 6-0, but it did not dominate in this manner. The 2012 National Champions didn’t do it, and while the 2015 defensive monster came close, it could not defeat all six opponents by 21 points or more.
And, the average 28 point margin, by and large, is an understatement of this team’s early power. Why? “It’s Calipari Time” (hummed to the tune of “It’s Howdy Doody Time”) has routinely seen UK’s final margin of victory shrink over the last 2 to 6 minutes. This team has established much larger working margins during the first 35 minutes of nearly every game, only to see those margins shrink to the final margins after Coach Calipari empties his bench, starting with the insertion of his son, Brad, into the game.
Therefore, the poll voters can see beyond the mere final margins and better value UK’s strength, while the analytics miss the full impact that this team has had on its collective opponents because of the impact that “Calipari Time” has on the final efficiencies and margins.
Some critics look at this achievement and discount its significance due to the weakness of the collective opposition. However, consider who the 1947-48 team played to set this mark nearly 70 years ago: Indiana Central, Fort Knox, Tulsa twice, Depaul at the Jefferson County Armory in Louisville, and at Cincinnati. Or consider the powerful 2015 team that started against Grand Canyon, Buffalo, Kansas, Boston U, Montana State, and Texas Arlington. Regardless of Era, regardless of strength of schedule, this team is playing at a consistent level that has not been witnessed in these parts for nearly 70 years, stretching back to a team that became known around the world at the Fabulous Five, and in addition to the NCAA Championship, also won Olympic Gold.
Yes, it is too soon to anoint this group with such high praise. Other than a noteworthy start, they have not really achieved anything, at least by UK’s true standards. It must continue to improve and win games of course, but to enter the real conversation about all-time great teams it must cut down the nets in April and bring home the hardware for the 9th time in the program’s history.
The journey continues on Monday evening when the Cats take on Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State Sun Devils in the Bahamas. Outside of Michigan State, the other five UK opponents have Pomeroy ratings between #138 (Stephen F. Austin) and 229 (Canisius). With Michigan State at #31, the average rank of the first six opponents has been #174.
The next six games will be a significant step up in the level of the opposition with an average Pomeroy rank of #60. The Sun Devils are at the #78 position, a clear step up in the level of competition. The remainder of the next six games will see the Cats taking on teams currently at #72 (Valparaiso), #20 (UCLA), #7 (UL), and #3 (UNC). Arizona State in the Bahamas on Monday will be the first opponent in this group.
Like the Cats, Arizona State has played six games, with a 4-2 record. Their average level of opposition has been #205. The Sun Devils’ most impressive wins of this young season have been over #233 Cal Poly by 22 points, and over #222 Tulane by 9 on a neutral court. The Sun Devils have lost to #68 Northern Iowa by 19 and #67 Davidson by 8, both on a neutral court. Arizona State enters this game with an ANE of 0.027 points per possession against a strength of schedule of -0.0559 ppp. The Cats enter this game with an ANE of 0.307 ppp against a strength of schedule of -0.0537 ppp. The ANE analysis indicates a UK win by 21 points, 91-70 at a pace of 77 possessions. This would produce game efficiencies of 1.182 ppp and 0.909 ppp. Pomeroy sees this game in UK’s favor by 16 points, 87-71 at a pace of 75 possessions.
Use the following link to see how other UK fans handicap this game at 247Sports, The Cats Pause message board:
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