Saturday, February 15, 2014

Auburn 56 - 64 Kentucky (No. 2,130)

I was really worried about this game.  Auburn was coming off a stretch in which it had won three straight games and then lost at LSU by only 87-80.  So the Tigers had been playing pretty well.  And it was a trap game for the Cats -- a Wednesday night game on the road (but not on ESPN) only a few days before the Cats were supposed to host Florida.  Auburn had a big crowd, there was a bunch of fouls called, and the Cats couldn't make any shots.  So with 11:29 left in the game, UK trailed 38-35, and the mood across the Commonwealth was grim.

But as we've said before, the Cats do not suffer from a lack of effort.  Whatever their faults may be, they do try hard.  And in the last 10 minutes of the game, they put up 25 points on a desperate Auburn defense, mainly by attacking the basket over and over and over.  Auburn plays a very physical style, but the Cats out-rebounded them 49-36.  The Cats also caught one huge break -- Auburn made only 2 of 16 three-pointers, an extremely low percentage.  Together, it was enough for an 8-point road victory that ran UK's record to 19-5 overall and 9-2 in the SEC.

On the message boards afterward, there was the usual concern over how UK doesn't blow anyone out.  And I can see that.  If you came into this season hoping that UK would win the national title, things aren't looking so good for you right now.  Using Ken Pomeroy's ratings (which go back to 2003), here's the national ranking for this year's Cats compared to the year-end ranking for other UK teams:

2003:  2
2004:  10
2005:  8
2006:  22
2007:  14
2008:  67
2009:  56
2010:  3
2011:  5
2012:  1
2013:  67
2014:  14

So while this team is not like the disastrous teams of 2008, 2009, and 2013, it's also not in the same class as the teams of 2003, 2005, 2010, 2011, or 2012.  In fact, it looks a lot like Tubby Smith's last team in 2007.  That team finished the year ranked 13th in offensive efficiency and 41st in defensive efficiency.  This year's team is 10th in offensive efficiency and 32d in defensive efficiency.  The 2007 team was 18-6 after 24 games; this team is 19-5.

But the 2007 team had to play in an SEC that was ranked by Ken Pomeroy as the second-best conference in America.  Florida was the best team in the country that year, and four other SEC teams (including UK) made the NCAA's.  Mississippi State was good enough to make the tournament (KenPom says they were the 22d best team in the country that year) but they were left out.  Facing a very difficult SEC schedule, the Cats also lost a lot of close games.  Look at some of these scores:

2/10/07:  Florida 64, Kentucky 61 (in Lexington)
2/13/07:  Tennessee 89, Kentucky 85 (in Knoxville)
2/25/07:  Vanderbilt 67, Kentucky 65 (in Nashville)
3/09/07:  Mississippi St. 84, Kentucky 82 (OT) (in the SEC Tournament)

As a result of playing in a tough conference and losing so many close games, the Cats went 9-7 in SEC play and were stuck with a number 8 seed in the tournament.  They were beaten 88-76 in the second round by a very good Kansas team and that was the end of Tubby's career in Lexington.

This year's team, on the other hand, is playing in a much weaker conference.  According to Pomeroy, the SEC is the sixth-best conference in the country, and only three SEC teams are ranked in the top 40 in America.  As a result, Ken Pom thinks the Cats will likely finish 14-4 in the SEC, and there's still a good chance for a top-four seed.  With a good seed, and a few good breaks, the Cats could still make a very nice run in the tournament.  Certainly there is no reason to panic.  In any event, as long as the Cats keep doing their best, they deserve our support.

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