By RICHARD CHEEKS
Sean Woods is one of us, and always will be one of our own. The Big Blue Nation will be in his corner as he moves up the coaching ranks, a path that has led him to coach the Morehead State Eagles, a mere 60 miles from Lexington and Rupp Arena. On Wednesday night, Sean will bring his current basketball family to celebrate Thanksgiving with his brothers in arms at the University of Kentucky. Welcome home Sean, and we will give Thanks together on Thursday, but on Wednesday evening, we hope you don’t find your chair on the visitor’s bench too comfortable.
After the first three games, the Cats are still struggling to find their team identity, and the absence of Ryan Harrow is making the search more difficult because everyone involved fully expects Ryan’s return will affect that identity in ways that no one can quite anticipate, other than to say it will be a positive impact. Nevertheless, these Cats have grown by leaps and bounds over the course of a mere 9 days. On November 9, the Cats looked like a group of freshmen who had just met, and needed a calm contribution from Jarrod Polson to pull a win from the jaws of defeat against Maryland. Harrow played, but it was evident from his 10 minutes of court time that he probably should not have done so.
Four days later, the Cats moved to the Atlanta stage to meet a veteran and highly ranked Duke team. Following the Maryland show, and with the knowledge that Ryan could not even make the trip to Atlanta, many fans, including this fan, feared a huge defeat, and only hoped for a game that provided an opportunity to win in the final 4 minutes. The former did not occur, even though Duke flirted with the possibility, but these Cats showed great growth, and had the ball down 3 inside the 3 minute mark before losing by 7. The Big Blue Nation is seldom at ease with a lose, and every member would have preferred that the 3 point attempt to tie would have gone in and the Cats could have found the way to win. However, the game showed everyone that the team had grown considerably in 4 days, even without Harrow’s presence, and with the upside that clearly remains for this Kentucky team, we would welcome a rematch with Duke in March.
Three days later, the Cats opened the home season against Morehead as heavy favorites to get back on the winning track. Pomeroy figured the game as a 28 point Kentucky win, as did my NGE analysis. The Vegas boys refused to put the game on the line. I had hope that Kentucky’s growth would be sufficient since Duke to at least match the model projected margin after back to back games that fell short of the model by about 10 to 15 points. Again, Ryan could not go, and the Cats showed a degree of growth that few if anyone expected, nearly doubling the projected 28 point margin and winning by 52 points.
Coach Calipari knows how to coach, and the growth we are witnessing with this team is proof positive of that fact. Pomeroy started the year with the Cats in his #1 position. 9 days, and 3 games later, the shaky start dropped them to #2, and this team’s potential remains light years above its current game performance levels. That is why the Big Blue Nation can give Thanks on Thursday for April’s National Championship and for the current state of the Kentucky Basketball Program. Sean Woods’ is a member of the family, and I am confident that he will share in giving those Thanks on Thursday too.
However, make no mistake, Sean Woods’ Eagles will come into Rupp Arena on Wednesday night determined to make a good showing, and get out of Rupp with a win of their own if possible. So, until Thursday morning, Sean must be regarded as any enemy that walks into the Cats’ domain.
Last year, Morehead finished the season 18-15, rated #189 losing to Tennessee State in the second round of the Ohio Valley Tournament against a schedule rated as the 241st toughest in D1 basketball. This year, Morehead has opened like Kentucky with two wins and one loss, and one of the two wins came at the expense of Alice Lloyd College. Morehead defeated future UK opponent Long Island by 3 points in Brooklyn, and lost at Maryland by 22 points. In their first two D1 games, Morehead has played at an average pace of about 71 possession, scoring 61.0 ppg (0.853 ppp) while allowing 70.5 ppg (0.993ppp) against an early schedule rated as the 71st toughest (0.7254). Morehead’s turnover rate has been 27.3% while forcing opponents to turn the b all over on 25.4% of the possessions. Morehead’s rebounding rates have been 57.5% on the defensive glass and 40.3% on the offensive glass.
Kentucky, by comparison, the Cats have played the 117th toughest early schedule (0.6182), and the Cats have played at an average pace of about 69 possessions per game, producing 80.3ppg (1.161 ppp) and allowing 64.3 ppg (0.932 ppp). The Cats’ turnover rate has been 16.9% while they have forced opponent turnovers only 22.7% of possessions. On the boards, the Cats have gotten 60.3% of the rebounds on the defensive end and 30.5% of the rebounds at the offensive end.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cats by 30 points, 84-54 in a game played with about 70 possessions. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 22 points, 74-52 at a pace of 62 possessions.. In my view, a Kentucky win by 25 points or more will bode well, and a win by less than 15 points will signal a setback in the development of this team.