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By RICHARD CHEEKS
The Cats managed to get past Vanderbilt on Wednesday night in the first of three must win home games. In game two, the Cats will take on the #23 Missouri Tigers in a game that ESPN selected at the beginning of the season for their weekly College Game Day festivities. I doubt that ESPN selected this date/game for this attention because it expected the Cats to be fighting for their proverbial post season lives, but that is the situation that this season has produced.
Yes, the Cats did manage to get the W against the Commodores, but the final margin was only 4 points, and the Cats were unable to maintain, much less expand upon a 14 point first half lead. That has been the script of this team for much of this basketball season, even before the loss of Nerlens Noel. However, the game that the Cats played against Vanderbilt was an improvement over the way the team played last Saturday in Knoxville when it could have never managed to move into any substantial lead beyond the 1 to 2 point leads that are common to most games in the first 4 to 6 minutes before a dominant teams establishes a working margin.
Are the Cats learning how to play without Nerlens Noel? Is the apparent improvement from the Tennessee game to the Vanderbilt game real or illusory? The Big Blue Nation will focus on tonight these questions. However, make no mistake, the rest of the nation will tune in with visions of a likely Kentucky Humiliation dancing in their collective heads.
I understand that the conventional wisdom is that the team’s loss of Nerlens Noel has produced the dramatic decline in team performance as compared to expected results. However, a review of this team’s game to game deviations from predicted margin do not indicate anything unusual for this team over the last two games. For example, games 14-17 had the following game-by-game deviations from predicted margin: -8, -31,-7, and +15. The game-by-game variations for games 24 through 26 have been +2, -32, and -13. In my opinion, this team is more likely to outperform the predicted margin as to under perform the predicted margin, given the pattern that has occurred this season through 26 games.
Missouri enters this game with a 19-7 record, 8-5 in the SEC. However, the Tigers claim a 3 point win over #1 Florida in their last game, this past Tuesday following a 31 point humiliation to the Gators in Gainesville in mid-January. Six of Missouri’s seven losses have occurred on the road, and the seventh loss was at a neutral location. The Tigers are 1-6 on the road, with their only road win coming at the SEC’s bottom team, Mississippi State. The Missouri road performance has been dismal this season. Missouri’s schedule has been more than respectable, 70th most difficult in D1 basketball (0.6225 per Pomeroy).
At 8-5 with five games remaining, the Tigers are in the hunt for one of the 3 remaining SEC Tournament byes. The other contenders are Alabama (10-3), Kentucky (9-4), Mississippi (8-5), and Arkansas (8-5). A win tonight over the Cats would enhance the Tigers’ chances for one of those byes while make it imperative that the Cats not lose again to secure one of those spots. Therefore, the stakes are high for both team with respect to the SEC race. For the Cats, the stakes are even higher. Missouri has a victory of #1 Florida on its NCAA resume, but the Cats’ NCAA resume remains empty of quality wins. A win tonight over #23 Missouri will given the Cats that resume filler that the team now lacks.
MISSOURI has averaged about 70 possessions per game, producing 76.0 ppg (1.09 ppp) and allowing 65.7 ppg (0.94 ppp). MISSOURI has turned the ball over on 19.2% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 17.7% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, MISSOURI has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 39.7% about 6 to 7% above the 33% NCAA average, and a defensive rebounding rate of 72.8%, about 5% above the NCAA average.
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 69 possessions per game, producing 74.3 ppg (1.08 ppp) and allowing 64.0ppg (0.93 ppp) against a schedule strength of 0.6277 (67th). The Cats have committed turnovers on 19.1% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 18.2% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 34.7% and 68.8% on the offensive and defensive ends.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of Kentucky by 6 points, 73-67 in a game played at a pace of 69 possessions for the Cats and 69 possessions for MISSOURI. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 2 points, 75-73 at a pace of 70 possessions. The likely margin range for this matchup is Missouri by 3 to Kentucky by 15 points.