By RICHARD CHEEKS
For all the family members (Big Blue Nation Members) who openly doubted Coach Calipari’s and these players during the 2013-14 season, and I include myself in that group, and possibly among the most vocal, the proof is in the pudding! In February, many, and truth be told, the vast majority of fans, sports press, and college basketball observers had left these Cats for dead. Regardless of how a person felt about UK, Calipari, “one and done” or any of the other stimuli of negativity toward the program, this coach, or these players, these Cats were dead in the water.
However, Coach Calipari knew this team was not dead yet! These players came to understand that the level of play, the quality of their on-court decision making, and the results of the season, primarily the last half of February was not compatible with their ability, or the expectations for this program. Coach Calipari was the stimulus for change that brought this team from a state of “given up for dead” to a level of vitality that only one other team can claim on this Sunday following the NCAA Final Four games.
The Resurrection Cats!
Coach Calipari delivered that message to his team at the first organized practice after their humiliating loss in Gainesville on March 8. Coach Calipari placed himself in a closed casket that his staff wheeled into the practice facility. At the critical moment, Coach Calipari open the lid from within, rose up and proclaimed to his team, “Boys, we aren’t dead yet.” and the tweak was on. Or so the story goes! Aaron Harrison declared to the world that his team had not written its final chapters, and before that task is completed, they would shock the world. There was a collective and not so silent snicker heard throughout the basketball world and Big Blue Nation.
I live in the “show me” state of belief. One game, two games, and even 3 games do not provide clear and convincing evidence that a change has occurred. For this fan, that threshold occurs at five consecutive games. That is why I officially begged for a spot back on the bandwagon after these Resurrection Cats beat undefeated Wichita State (best played overall game of the entire tournament) to satisfy my rigid requirement of five in a row. However, while the improvement was clear and convincing, it did not seem sufficient to get by archrival Louisville. However, their post-season revival continued through Louisville, then Michigan, and last night against a very strong Wisconsin team.
This resurgence of the Resurrection Cats now stands at 8 consecutive games. Consider some of the following tidbits of trivia:
UK has now won 11 straight NCAA games, and this program’s last loss was to UConn in 2011.
This is the first NCAA tournament team to win 5 in a row by 5 points or less.
Monday night’s Championship game will be the first one since UK met Texas Western in 1966 that the two teams still standing at the end did not even play in the NCAA Tournament the previous year.
There have been #8 seeds and #7 seeds reach the final four in the past, but never have two such teams survived to play each other for the Championship, UNTIL THIS YEAR!
Ironically, the 2011 UConn team had also been given up for dead prior to the post season. For all intents and purposes, this UConn team was also left for dead following its season finale on March 8 when it lost to Louisville by 33 points, 81-48. For this reason, it is difficult for either team to lay claim to being The Team of Destiny for 2014.
Connecticut is 31-8 against a schedule strength of 0.7019 (15th) and Kentucky is 29-10 against a schedule strength of 0.7356 (3rd). Connecticut currently holds the #10 position on Pomeroy, and the Cats hold to #9 at present. Both teams are on the rise in the Pomeroy ratings. Connecticut began the tournament at #25, and have risen 15 spots to #10. Kentucky began the tournament in the #17 spot, and have risen 8 spots to #9. As the #7 seed in East Region, Connecticut got past its first opponent, #46 Saint Joseph’s by 8 points. In the Round of 32, Connecticut turned by #14 Villanova away by 12 and in the Sweet 16, the Huskies slipped past #21 Iowa State by 5. The Huskies controlled the game against #8 Michigan State in the Elite 8 before allowing the Spartans to close the gap to 6 points at the end. Last night, the Huskies dominated #3 Florida in their 10 point win to advance to Monday’s final against the Cats.
The Cats, with the #8 seed in the Midwest Region, beat #43 Kansas State by 7 and # 5 Wichita State by 2 to reach the Sweet 16. The Cats had to fight from behind to get past #3 Louisville by 5, and the Aaron Harrison’s 3 pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining provided the 3 point win over #10 Michigan in the Elite 8. Last night, the Cats again played from behind in the second half to get a hard earned win over #6 Wisconsin by 1 points on the strength of Aaron Harrison’s third game winning 3 pointer in the last 3 games.
Among Connecticut ’s the 31 wins, 16 have come at the expense of teams with Pomeroy ratings of 100 or higher, and 12 of those opponents were rated at #150 or lower. That leaves 22 games against teams rated in the top 100, but of those, 20 have been against top 50 opponents with a record of 13-7 in those 19 games. Connecticut ’s can claim wins over #3 Florida twice, #8 Michigan State, and #14 Villanova, with losses to #2 Louisville three times, #24 Cincinnati, #30 SMU twice, #36 Stanford, and #125 Houston. As strong as the Connecticut’s schedule has been, it still will have trouble explaining its loss to #125 Houston on December 31, 2013, just as the Cats have trouble explaining their loss to #111 South Carolina.
Everything surrounding this matchup suggests another game that will not be decided until the last few possessions.
CONNECTICUT has averaged 66 to 67 possessions per game, scoring 72.1 ppg (1.088 ppp) and allowing 63.5 ppg (0.950 ppp). CONNECTICUT has turned the ball over on 17.3% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 19.4% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, CONNECTICUT has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 30.5% about 1.5% above the 29% NCAA average, and a defensive rebounding rate of 67.1%, about 2% below the NCAA average.
In contrast, the Cats have averaged 67 to 68 possessions per game, producing 75.3 ppg (1.116 ppp) and allowing 66.8 ppg (0.994 ppp). The Cats have committed turnovers on 17.8% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 16.0% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 42.3% and 70.2% on the offensive and defensive ends against a schedule strength of 0.7356 (#3).
Based on this distribution, the NGE analysis is a dead heat, a pick ‘em game. However, since the Cats have an advantage by the smallest of margins, the predicted score favors the Cats by 1 point, 70-69. Kentucky hold a slight advantage with offensive efficiency and schedule strength, and Connecticut has a small edge with their defensive efficiencies. The pace of this game should be about 67 possessions for each team. Pomeroy has this game in Kentucky ’s favor by 1 point, 69-68 in a game played at a pace of 63 possessions. Vegas see this game in Kentucky’s favor by 2 ½ points, 71-68.
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