By RICHARD CHEEKS
One testament to the quality of the Kentucky non-conference basketball schedule, year in and year out, is the number of times the Cats seem to meet a prior regular season opponent in the NCAA tournament, especially in the Sweet 16 and beyond. Since Coach Calipari has been on the Kentucky sidelines, his Cats have played a total of 16 NCAA Tournament games in the Sweet 16 or beyond.
Of those 16 NCAA games, 6 of the opponents have been programs that the Cats played during that same regular season. It will occur again on Friday night for the seventh time in 17 such games, and should the Cats advance to Sunday’s Elite 8 game, it is very likely that it will play North Carolina for the second time this season, the 8th such NCAA Tournament rematch in 18 such NCAA games.
Some may argue that this is a testament to the scheming NCAA committee to place as many road blocks in the Cats’ path to championships. However, I believe this is a testament to the high quality of Kentucky’s non-conference schedule.
This of course begs the question, how have Calipari’s Cats fared in these NCAA Tournament rematches? The answer is, “Quite Well.”
Calipari’s Cats have played in five Sweet 16 games, and Coach Calipari is 5-0 in those games. In two of these five games at the Sweet 16, the Cats have encountered a regular season opponent twice. In 2012, the Cats faced IU and avenged the regular season loss to the Hoosiers in Bloomington. In 2014, the Cats faced Louisville and maintained their dominance over the Cards..
Despite going 1-1 in the respective regular season games against these opponents, Calipari’s Cats are 2-0 in the NCAA Sweet 16 in these rematch encounters, avenging the early season loss at Indiana,
Calipari’s Cats have played in five Elite 8 games, and Coach Calipari is 4-1 in those games. At the Elite 8 level, it has happened one time, in 2011, when the Cats faced UNC for the second time. UNC beat the Cats at Chapel Hill by 2 points, and Calipari’s Cats avenged that loss in the NCAA Elite 8.
Calipari’s Cats have played in four Final Four games, and Coach Calipari is 2-2 in those games. At the Final Four level, these rematch games have occurred one time, in 2011, when the Cats faced UConn. In the regular season, UK man-handled the Cats in Hawaii and handed them a 17 point loss. While losing to the Huskies for the second time, the Cats managed to trim the final margin from 17 points to only 1 point.
Calipari’s Cats have played in two Championship games, and Coach Calipari is 1-1 in those games. At the Championship game level, the Cats faced a regular season opponent once, Kansas in 2012. The Cats beat Kansas in both encounters.
The Cats have faced a regular season opponent in the NCAA Sweet 16 or beyond six times. In the regular season, the Cats has a 3-3 record against these teams during the respective regular seasons, and earned a record of 5-1 against those teams in the rematch opportunities. Two of the three regular season losses had occurred on the opponents’ home courts and one at a neutral location.
Friday’s matchup with UCLA will be the first such NCAA rematch for which an opponent defeated the Cats at Rupp Arena during the regular season. UCLA came into Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016, and handed the Cats a 5-point home loss, 97-92.
The Cats maintained a lead early in the game, and led by 9 points with 10:00 remaining in the first half. At that time, UCLA took control of the game at the midpoint of the first half, and never trailed again, once they secured the lead near the end of the first half. The Bruins expanded their 4 point halftime lead in the first 3 minutes of the second half. While the Cats made two separate runs in the second half, the first one stalled after the Cats pulled to within 6 points, and the second failed at the end of the game after the Cats closed the gap to only 3 points with 10 seconds remaining.
Given an average home court advantage of 6 points, the 5 point loss to UCLA at Rupp suggests UCLA may have been about 11 points superior to the Cats in that December encounter. However, Kentucky and UCLA are not the same teams that faced off at Rupp over 3 months ago. Arguably, both teams are much improved, and both teams are playing their best basketball at present.
UCLA enters this game with an ANE of 0.243 points per possession against strength of schedule of 0.045 ppp (#77). The Cats enter this game with an ANE of 0.285 ppp against strength of schedule of 0.1003 ppp (#27). The ANE analysis indicates a Kentucky win by 3 points, 80-77 at apace of 77 possessions.
This would produce game efficiencies of 1.036 ppp and 0.997 ppp. Pomeroy sees this game in Kentucky’s favor by 2 points 88-86 at a pace of 77 possessions. Vegas opened at “pick ‘em” and some of the lines have moved to UCLA favored by 1 point.
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