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By RICHARD CHEEKS
As we witnessed on Thursday night, this year’s Cats justified our anticipation by showing glimpses of the team that they can become when it will play for a full 40 minutes, and by showing a gritty determination down the stretch to find a way to win despite its poor play for nearly the entire second half. However, these Cats also justified our apprehension by allowing an opponent to score 15 straight points to erase a 15-point second half lead. The second half raised many more questions than the first game was able to answer.
Did the big first-half lead come too easy despite the Cats inability to rebound?
Did these youngsters decide they could coast home in the second half?
How long will it take this team to play the full game every night?
On a side note, Kentucky fans saw evidence that Junior walk on Jarrod Polson is not simply biding his time hoping to fit another ring on his finger while watching history from the bench. No, Jarrod Polson has served notice that he plans to play a role in making the history. On Thursday night, his team would not have won without him, and that is the Title of Chapter 1 of Jarrod’s History Book.
As a result of the Thursday night performance, the apprehension level regarding Tuesday’s show down with Duke is amplified. After all, that was Maryland, and this is Duke. Maryland barely kept its head above 500 last year while Duke finished last season 27-7 and a top 20 team. Yes, Maryland may be a much better team in 2013 as compared to 2012, but Maryland still must demonstrate their improvement on the court because the second half on Thursday was not so much a case of Maryland showing strength as Kentucky revealing weakness. In contrast to Maryland, most observers believe Duke will be significantly improved this year, maintaining its #8 (Pomeroy) rating after its first game, a 19 point win over Georgia State at Cameron.
Make no mistake, by Tuesday night the Cats must be prepared to compete for a full 40 minutes because that is what Duke will do. Coach Calipari has 4 days to impress this fact of major college basketball upon his young players. If he can, Kentucky and Duke will have a game that either team could win at the end. However, if not, this young team will leave Atlanta with some major egos deflated.
Last year, Duke closed its season with a 27-7 record, but Duke lost 3 of its last 4 games. Duke ended their regular season with an 18 point loss to North Carolina at Cameron, followed by a 3 point loss to Florida State in the second round of the ACC Tournament, and a 5 point embarrassment at the hands of Lehigh in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. While the Cats have had 7 months to bask in the glory, the Blue Devils have been waiting just as long to garner some measure of redemption, and have no doubt that they will try to gain their redemption at the expense of the defending National Champions Tuesday night.
The 2011-12 Blue Devils played at an average pace of 68 to 69 possessions per game (UK 67 possessions last year), and averaged 77.3 ppg to 68.6 ppg for their opponents against the 22nd toughest schedule in the country. This year, Duke has played one game against Georgia State, earning a 19 point win at Cameron, 74-55.
By way of comparison, last year’s UK team played at a pace of about 67 possession per game to produce 77.4 ppg and allowing only 60.6 ppg against the 26th toughest schedule in the county. This year, the Cats have beaten Maryland by 3 points, 72-69, on a neutral court.
On the strength of the respective first game performances only, Duke should bring considerably more confidence to Atlanta’s encounter. That confidence, coupled with Duke’s superior level of experience, could be more than enough to hand these Cats their first loss, and send them back to Lexington to lick wounds and heal before the schedule carries them away from Rupp Arena to face Notre Dame. However, I am not ready to concede defeat because I have witnessed how Calipari has been able to pull his young teams up that steep learning curve to a level of competitiveness that I did not expect to observe. Thereforee, I will wait until Tuesday and see what happens when they lace up the sneakers and play the game.
As most of you understand, one game does not a trend make, so making projections on the basis on single games, as I did above, is foolish. You also understand that using a previous season to establish the benchmark of expectation for the new season is just as risky. However, that has been the method to my madness for many years, and I am not changing now. I use a 5 game transition period at the beginning of each season, and the projections use 100% of the prior year for game 1, and transition to 100% of the current season by game 6. This is game 2 (80% 2012/20% 2013).
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cats by 5 points, 73-68 in a game played with about 68 possessions. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by a scant 2 points. In my view, any Kentucky win will bode well, and a loss by less than 5 points will not cause officials to close bridges where big blue fans reside. However, if the Cats under perform these projections by 15 or more points as they did in game one, then I will adjust my 2013 expectations downward.