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By RICHARD CHEEKS
Adolph Rupp had said that Kentucky’s basketball season does not begin until January when SEC games begin. There was no doubt that throughout his tenure, he treated winning the SEC championship as essential. And it was, because without that achievement, there was no NCAA post season participation in those days. Perhaps, the significance of SEC competition has been diluted as the NCAA expanded the size of the field to include teams that in some cases were unable to win over ½ of their conference games. However, for this old fan, and many like me, the SEC wars over the years work to make the SEC race special each year.
The constant over the decades of SEC play has been Kentucky’s propensity toward championships. Kentucky has won the regular season championships 45 times in 79 seasons. Other members of the SEC have risen from time to time to challenge the Cats’ seat on the throne. LSU claims 10 championships, Tennessee 9, Alabama 7, Mississippi State 6, and Florida 5. All other teams only can lay claim to 10 Championships between them. The Cats have won over 78% of all SEC games, and the next closest challenger is Alabama at 57%. Any season that has a winner not named Kentucky is the exception to the rule.
This is why the opening of the SEC season has the south chattering. Florida has clearly established itself as the conference front runner for 2013, but the Gators can feel the Wildcats breathing on their necks, even if they pretend to not hear the soft footsteps of the Cat. At the end, I fully expect the game between these teams at Rupp to close out the season will have another SEC Championship as its prize. However, neither team will play for that prize in March if it does not attend to the business of getting there. That requires a one game at a time focus. First up for the Cats will be the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville.
Cat Fans worldwide know without any prompting that Vanderbilt is the last SEC team to hand the Cats a SEC loss in last year’s SEC Tournament Championship game. The entire Big Blue Nation are primed for this long awaiting opportunity to set that record straight, and these Cats will take care of their business and get out of Nashville with a 1-0 record in the conference, and place the Cats as the pace setters in 2013 for valuable road wins.
Vanderbilt has opened the season with only six wins in twelve starts. The apologists will explain to an observer that Vanderbilt lost nearly all of its scoring from last year’s team. Well, Booo Hooo!!!! Excuses are for losers, and this year, Vanderbilt is a loser. Among their six non-conference loses this season, the most inexplicable was a 17 point loss, 50-33, to #251 Marist. So far this season, the Commodores’ most impressive win has been by 2 points in OT over #107 Xavier on the road.
Vanderbilt has averaged about 63 possessions per game, producing 59.7 ppg (0.95 ppp) and allowing 59.5 ppg (0.95 ppp) against an early schedule that Pomeroy rates as the 210th toughest (0..4900). Vanderbilt has turned the ball over on 20.6% of its possessions while forcing turnovers on 21.3% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, Vanderbilt has secured an offensive rebounding rate of 27.8% about 5% below the 33% NCAA average, and a defensive rebounding rate of 68.8%, also about 2% above the NCAA average.
In contrast, the Cats have averaged about 71 possessions per game, producing 79.2 ppg (1.11 ppp) and allowing 60.8 ppg (0.86 ppp) against a schedule strength of 0..5192 (171st). The Cats have committed turnovers on 17.8% of its possessions and forced turnovers on 21.3% of opponent possessions. On the Boards, the Cats’ rebounding rates have been 34.6% and 69.8% on the offensive and defensive ends.
Based on this distribution, the analysis tips in favor of the Cats by 10 points, 70-60 in a game played at a pace of 67 possessions for the Cats and 67 possessions for Vanderbilt. Pomeroy figures the Game in Kentucky’s favor by 13 points, 68-55 at a pace of 65 possessions. From my perspective, if the Cats beat Vanderbilt by 20 points or more, the team will reinforce the sense developing around the country that the Cats are indeed back. However, if the Cats allow the Commodores to stay within 1 or 2 possessions in the final 5 minutes of the game, the subpar road performance will rise to dominate the discussions until the Cats posts some convincing road wins later in the season.