By RICHARD CHEEKS
This past Saturday, the Cats became the last undefeated SEC team with a 7-0 start by handing South Carolina its first SEC loss of the season at Rupp Arena. The UK win, coupled with Florida’s home court loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday, propelled this Kentucky team into a commanding lead for the 2017 SEC regular season championship. Looking ahead, only two remaining Kentucky opponents have a theoretical margin less than 10 points against these Cats, at Georgia by 9 points, and at Florida by 3 points (Pomeroy).
South Carolina must travel to Florida where they are likely to pick up a second conference loss. However, if South Carolina can run the table through the end of this SEC season, Kentucky must lose twice in conference games because UK owns the tiebreaker over the Gamecocks. Florida now stands two games off the UK pace and will have to defeat USC and Kentucky twice to beat the Cats in the Conference race. Clearly, the Cats have the inside position for the conference championship, and a win over Florida at Rupp will seal the deal.
In the game on Saturday, the Cats handled the Gamecocks by 16 points. The most significant event during this game was De’Aaron Fox leaving the game in the first half with an ankle injury. With Fox on the floor, the Cats had no difficulty with the Gamecock defense and jumped on them early with a 17 point lead, 23-6 after only 8 ½ minutes of play. With 12:43 on the clock, De’Aaron Fox made a layup and crashed into the basket support after being fouled. He rose from the floor with a limp, remained in the game for his free throw, which he missed, before being removed from the game at the next clock stoppage at 12:31. Fox made one more appearance in the game, but his time on the floor was very short, and the trainer escorted him to the locker room. A short time later, we learned that De’Aaron Fox would not return to the game due to an ankle injury, and he reappeared on the bench in street clothes wearing a protective boot on his foot.
With Fox out of the game, the Gamecocks turned the tide and trimmed the UK lead to 3 points, 30-27 with 4:39 remaining in the first half. The Cats stopped the South Carolina comeback with a 3 pointer by Derek Willis and managed to fend off the Gamecocks to the half with a 9 point lead. In the second half, the Cats and Gamecocks played on even terms for the first 10 minutes with the Cats leading by 10 points at the 10:20 mark.
However, the superior Cat talent and depth finally took its toll, even without Fox on the floor, allowing the Cats to extend their lead to a game high 23 points with 1:27 remaining, at which time Coach Calipari emptied his bench. The final margin, 16 points, reflects the ineffectiveness of the deep bench reserves, as the Cats allowed South Carolina to score the game’s final 7 points during that time.
The Basketball office reports that De’Aaron Fox’s status is day to day. On Monday, we learned that he is no longer in the protective boot, but his status for the Tennessee game remains unknown. Without him on Saturday, the Cats were not as efficient on either end of the floor, but it was most noticeable on the defensive end. Dominique Hawkins provided quality minutes at the point, and Derek Willis/Wenyen Gabriel combined at the power forward position with another very strong effort following their strongest tandem game of the year at Mississippi State last Tuesday. The Cats will need all three of them to step up tonight in Knoxville to get out of town with their 8th SEC win of the year without a loss.
Last year, the Cats walked into Thompson-Bowling as a 7 to 9 point favorite, and after playing about 14 minutes, it appeared that the Cats would have no trouble with the Vols after they build a 21-point lead with 5:40 remaining in the first half. However, the Vols outscored the Cats 23-8 over the last 5:40 of the half and 48-35 in the second half to hand the Cats a 84-77 loss. The Cats on this team who experienced that loss seek redemption tonight.
TENNESSEE enters the game with a 10-9; 3-4 record. The Vols have been a Jeckyl-Hyde type of team in 2016-17. They have inexplicably gone toe to toe with #7 North Carolina in Chapel Hill before falling to the Tar Heels by only 2 while losing at #89 Mississippi by 11 a week ago. Tennessee’s most impressive win this season was a 12 point win at #60 Vanderbilt. TENNESSEE enters this game with an ANE of 0.153 points per possession against a strength of schedule of 0.1045 ppp (#3). The Cats enter this game with an ANE of 0.333 ppp against a strength of schedule of 0.0623 ppp (#31).
The ANE analysis indicates a Kentucky win by 9 points, 82-73 at apace of 77 possessions. This would produce game efficiencies of 1.068 ppp and 0.951 ppp. Pomeroy sees this game in Kentucky’s favor by 11 points, 90-79 at a pace of 76 possessions.
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