By RICHARD CHEEKS
For teams like Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Villanova, and a very small group of programs that set sights each year on Championships, Game 20 and Game 21 mark the mid-point of a season. 31 regular season games followed by 3 conference post season tournament games, followed by up to 6 NCAA Tournament post season games. For Kentucky during the Calipari era, Games 20 and 21 have marked the time for the one and done kittens to grow into ferocious Cats.
Coach Calipari knows the time is now. He has initiated his annual recitals of “I need to do a better job;” “It is time for these kids to move beyond the AAU mentality and play with discipline;” and “I like my team” in the aftermath of the Cats’ most embarrassing loss of the season this past Tuesday at Tennessee.
The Cats played with very little, if any, discipline, and the Cats lack of discipline resulted in various Cats missing shots that are literally “unmissable.” The Cats played with no discipline on the offensive end, willing to settle for awkward, forced shots rather than work the ball into their post man, Edrice (BAM) Adebayo. The Cats played with no discipline on the defensive end, allowing various Volunteer players to reach the basket without defense, and if they missed, too many easy second chance baskets.
The result of this team abandonment of the discipline that Coach Calipari has been teaching and emphasizing was this loss to a good, but certainly not great, 10-9 Tennessee team. In fact, the final 2 point margin was much closer than the reality of the game itself, which saw Tennessee seize control early, and maintain a lead of 7 to 11 points for the vast majority of the game.
It is true that all teams stumble a few times over the course of a season, and strictly by the numbers, the home loss in December to UCLA was a weaker overall performance. However, this loss comes at a critical time of the season, when the team should have become more disciplined, in preparation for the drive toward a championship run. On Saturday, the Cats have an opportunity to demonstrate its readiness for that run when Kansas visits Rupp Arena for the annual SEC-Big12 Challenge, strategically scheduled at the mid-season point.
Last year, the Cats limped out of “Phog” of Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, with a disappointing overtime loss to the Jayhawks into the Smokies where the Cats lost to the Vols despite having a 21 point lead late in the first half of that game. These back-to-back losses a year ago signaled and exposed the fatal weaknesses that eventually caused that group of Cats to exit early from the post season. Will history repeat in January 2017 with another critical back-to-back loss to the Vols and the Jayhawks, or will the 2017 Cats return to the Rupp court and show the discipline necessary to beat a legitimate title contender?
The Big Blue Nation will get its answer on Saturday night as the entire basketball world watches. ESPN’s College Game Day has rolled into town. Their spot lights are bearing down on the Rupp Court, and a huge television audience will supplement the 23,000+ who will pack into Rupp on Saturday night.
Two of the “blue bloods” of college basketball.
Two of the highest ranked teams in the nation on January 26, 2017.
A game with national championship ramifications.
Teams populated by some of the best players in the college game.
Teams led by a pair of bigger than life coaches.
Fan bases that are rabid and extensive in their reach.
A marquee game that will be as big as its primetime billing.
KANSAS enters the game with a 18-2 record. The Jayhawks have been rock solid since the season opened in November when it dropped its opener to #38 Indiana by 4 in overtime on a neutral court. The Jayhawks then won their next 18 games including a 2 point win over #16 Duke, a 6 point win at #34 TCU, a 2 point win over #26 Kansas State a 7 point win over #27 Oklahoma State, and a 4 point win at #24 Iowa State. Yes, the Jayhawks fell by 16 points, 69-85, at #3 West Virginia on Tuesday night. The world will be also watching how the Jayhawks respond to their Tuesday loss as much as how the Cats respond their whipping on Tuesday.
KANSAS enters this game with an ANE of 0.274 points per possession against a strength of schedule of 0.0839 ppp (#15). The Cats enter this game with an ANE of 0.325 ppp against a strength of schedule of 0.0691 ppp (#25). The ANE analysis indicates a Kentucky win by 9 points, 83-74 at apace of 77 possessions. This would produce game efficiencies of 1.077 ppp and 0.960 ppp. Pomeroy sees this game in Kentucky’s favor by 8 points, 90-82 at a pace of 76 possessions. Vegas has opened favoring the Cats by 5.
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