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For almost the entire season, Nerlens Noel has been the most efficient basketball player on the UK team. His offensive skills were raw at the start, and they developed steadily, but Nerlens Noel’s real mark for this team came at the defensive end where he led the nation in blocked shots. The Cats leaned on Nerlens Noel to get the job done when others seemed unable to do so. Then on Tuesday night, in Gainesville, Florida with 8:03 to play in the game, Nerlens Noel responded to a Florida run out created off one of many Kentucky turnovers, and raced toward the Florida basket to block the attempted layup. To that point, it was classic Nerlens Noel, as we have all come to admire his hustle and his effort. Then, he crashed into the basket support and ripped his knee on its corner.
Nerlens Noel’s season came to an end at that instant, and Nerlens Noel went to the floor, unable to walk. After a delay in the game to attend to his injury, his teammate lifted him from the floor, and carried him off the floor, in a tribute to their fallen leader rarely observed by this fan over many years. The Cats lost the game to the Gators that night by 17 points, but the most impactful loss was of the team’s leader, Nerlens Noel. It is likely that we will never be blessed to see him play this game again in a Kentucky uniform, and it is too bad that his final appearance could not have been on the NCAA big stage for which he is most worthy. However, Nerlens Noel will forever occupy an honored position in the hearts and minds of the Big Blue Nation.
Now, this team must create a new identity, and if this new identity will enjoy an extended existence into the post season, the team will have to evolve into a winner without Nerlens Noel very quickly. Seven games remain on the regular schedule, and the first opportunity this team will have to demonstrate that it too has heart will be on the road. Over the many years, Knoxville has been one of the most difficult SEC road venues for UK teams. The litany of great UK teams that could not get out of Stokley and now Thompson-Bowling with a win is lengthy. My earliest recognition of this reality was in 1966 when the Runts suffered their only regular season loss in Stokley. The 1975 NCAA runner up lost in Stokley. The 1984 final four team lost at Stokley. The powerful 1988 Sutton coached team lost in Knoxville. The 1993 final four team lost at Thompson Bowling, as did Coach Calipari’s 2010 team.
This is not the venue at which you want to unveiling a “new” team identity.
However, if the Cats can find the heart to get the W on Saturday in Knoxville, the team will send a message to the rest of the SEC and the nation that the Cats are not a one-string fiddle.
Tennessee enters this game with a 13-10 record, 5-6 in the SEC. One explanation for this record on behalf of Tennessee is the strength of its a non-conference schedule that rates 104th most difficult (0..5701) and with the SEC games to date included, Tennessee’s schedule strength rises to 0.6378 (52nd most difficult). Six of Tennessee’s losses have come on the road, at #25 Georgetown by 1, at #19 Virginia by 8, and at SEC venues #70 Alabama by 3, #18 Kentucky by 10, #39 Mississippi by 6, and #71 Arkansas by 13. The road losses do not speak to a team that is only ranked #97 by Pomeroy as the Cats travel to Knoxville. However, the three home losses may do so, to #118 Georgia by 6, #39 Mississippi by 18, and #35 Memphis by 5.
At 5-6 with 7 games remaining, the Volunteers may have as strong motivation for a respectable finish as the Cats. If the Volunteers finish with 2 or fewer wins down the stretch, they will likely finish in the bottom 4 of the SEC, requiring them to play the new Wednesday round in the tournament. Beating the Cats on Saturday would be a huge step away from that fate for Tennessee. The Cats on the other hand need a strong finish, starting with a win in Knoxville, to secure a first round bye in the tournament and eliminate any chatter about bubbles for this group.
The stakes on Saturday are high for both teams.
TENNESSEE has averaged about 64 possessions per game, producing 63.7 ppg (0.99 ppp) and allowing 61.6 ppg (0.97 ppp). TENNESSEE has turned the ball over on 20.4% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 17.3% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, TENNESSEE has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 34.5% about 1% above the 33% NCAA average, and a defensive rebounding rate of 72.5%, about 5% above the NCAA average.
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 69 possessions per game, producing 75.0 ppg (1.08 ppp) and allowing 62.8 ppg (0.91 ppp) against a schedule strength of 0…6209 (62nd). The Cats have committed turnovers on 19.3% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 18.2% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 34.8% and 69.4% on the offensive and defensive ends.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of Kentucky by 2 points, 67-65 in a game played at a pace of 67 possessions for the Cats and 67 possessions for TENNESSEE. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 6 points, 69-63 at a pace of 65 possessions. The likely margin range for this matchup is Tennessee by 7 to Kentucky by 11 points.