By RICHARD CHEEKS
As the three exhibition games had warned, the current version of Calipari’s Cats are lagging behind their counterparts from the last 8 years in the early going. Last night, the Cats fought from behind to post a 10-point victory over Mark Pope’s Utah Valley Wolverines, but the final 10-point margin is somewhat deceiving because within a minute into the second half, the Cats found themselves trailing Pope’s Second Chance chargers by 12 points, 37-25. Coach Calipari then directed his team to use a 2-3 zone defense, a move that Coach Calipari publicly loathes.
The 2-3 zone paid large and immediate dividends as the data shown in the following Table illustrates. From 19:26 in the second half to 15:37 in the second half, the Cats turned that 12-point deficit into a 3 point lead with a 18-0 run. During that run of 9 possessions, the Cats were 8-8 including 2-2 from the 3 point arc with 1 turnover. The Wolverines missed 3 shots from the floor, both free three attempts, and committed 5 turnovers. If the statistics from this 4-minute segment of the game are removed from the final game statistics, the Cats were in huge trouble against Utah Valley.
The final 15:37, the teams fought on nearly equal terms with the Cats outscoring the Wolverines 30-26, not exactly overwhelming a lesser opponent who was supposed to surrender in the face of the 18-0 onslaught!!! Rather, Coach Pope appears to have used a pair of timeouts during the run to instruct his second chance troops about how to attack the Cats’ 2-3 zone, and his players were quick studies.
Oh what difference a little experience with real games can make in how one can or should view game outcomes. During the second exhibition against Morehead, this team found itself in a battle, leading only by 2 points midway through the second half. Yes, the Cats did “turn it on” and win the game by over 20 points, but last night Morehead lost its season opener at Xavier by 52 points, 101-49. This UK team has major issues it must resolve if it is going to be competitive in the SEC this season, let alone compete for a national championship in a serious manner. Furthermore, there is little time early in this schedule for practice between games, and tomorrow afternoon, the Cats must take to the Rupp Arena court again, this time to face Vermont in its season opener.
The 2016-17 season was strong enough to place Vermont at the top of the American East Conference with a 29-6 overall record, and 16-0 in the AEC. Vermont also won the AEC post season tournament before losing to #19 Purdue in the NCAA first round by 10 points. In addition, Vermont has established itself as having winning records in each of the last 4 seasons (22-11 in 2014; 20-14 in 2015; 23-14 in 2016; and 29-6 in 2017). The Catamounts’ offensive efficiency last season was 1.11 ppp (62nd) and its defense was 0.994 (73rd). Their most impressive win was by 11 points at #112 Harvard. Their most inexplicable defeat came at the hands of #159 Northeastern at home by 2 points. Vermont was a very consistent and sound basketball team in 2017.
There are 16 players on the current roster, and 12 of these players return from last season’s team. Vermont also played three exhibition games this season, handling Concordia by 28, 92-64, Saint Michaels’s by 49, 102-53, and D1 Boston University by 19, 87-66. For the record, Boston University opened its season last night with a 6 point loss to #140 Northeastern, and has a Pomeroy early season rating of #234 this morning as compared to Morehead’s #270.
The Adjusted Net Efficiency (ANE) analysis for this match up, based on pre-season estimates derived from Vermont’s recent history, and Kentucky’s win over Utah Valley indicates a game played at a pace of 74 possessions, with the Cats winning by 7 points, 77-70. Pomeroy sees this game with UK having a 16-point advantage, 82-66 played at a pace of 71 possessions.
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