Saturday, February 8, 2014

Kentucky 80, Mississippi 64 (No. 2,128)

I've watched all nine of UK's SEC games, and I realize just how much drama we've all seen.  There was the epic overtime loss at overtime, the hard-fought come-from-behind victory against Tennessee, the disappointment at LSU, the big win at Missouri, and lots of drama regarding Willie Cauley-Stein.  It certainly feels like we're in the middle of something big.  But if you look at the stats, the Cats are almost exactly where they were at the end of December.  Going into the Louisville game on December 28, Ken Pomeroy had UK ranked as the 12th-best team in the country.  Since then, the Cats have gone 8-2, and Ken Pomeroy now has them ranked as the 15th-best team in the country.

This game is a good example of what the season has been like.  Ole Miss came out playing really well, and led 28-23 before the Cats fought back for a 35-34 lead.  In the second half, UK blasted Ole Miss 45-30, and cruised home with a 16-point lead.  So it is tempting to say that UK made some huge adjustment that caused the difference.  And maybe they did.  But Pomeroy said UK would win 83-70, which was very close to the actual score of 80-64.  So it's also possible that each team played exactly as expected, but Ole Miss just happened to make more shots in the first half.

Anyway, from a players' perspective, the big event of the night was the return of Willie Cauley-Stein.  For once, WCS wasn't in foul trouble, and he caused all kinds of trouble for Ole Miss, going 7-8 from the field and 4-5 from the line(!).  In fact, UK's whole offense ran like a well-oiled machine, despite an unaccountably cold night from the outside.  The Cats went 2-13 from behind the arc, but they made 63 percent of their two point shots (24-38) and 72 percent of their free throws (26-36).  Since 2003, this is the second-best offensive team the Cats have had -- second only to the 2012 national champions.  So this team has a better offense than the John Wall team, or the Brandon Knight final four team, or the 2003 team that went 32-4, or the teams that featured Rajon Rondo at point guard.  This was the fourth game in a row that the Cats have scored at least 79 points, which is very hard to do in the plodding SEC.

Coach Calipari, of course, knows all this stuff better than we do, and I think he's starting to get legitimately excited about what could happen.  He was furious because the AP busted the Cats from 11 to 18 after their loss at LSU, because he thinks the press doesn't understand what's happening in Lexington.  The Cats were overrated at the beginning of the year, but Cal is convinced that they're now underrated.  I think from some of the comments he made after the Ole Miss game that he personally thinks they are making progress on defense -- even though it hasn't shown up statistically yet.  They are working on some very specific things:  WCS talked about stopping "straight-line drives," while Calipari talked about giving WCS more "defensive confidence" and doing a better job in transition defense.  I don't really understand any of these details, but it seems as though the coaching staff thinks that a lot of UK's defensive problems relate to a few discrete problems, rather than to something that can't be repaired.  The Cats are now 50th in the country in defensive efficiency -- since 2003, only the 2006, 2008, and 2013 models did worse.  But Calipari said Tuesday night that the Cats don't have to get into the top 10 in defense to be a real contender, given how good their offense has been.  If they can move up into the 20's or 30's, he thinks that would make a huge difference.

Anyway, there are only nine games left, and the Cats now head out on another road trip -- this time to Mississippi State and Auburn.  I'm sure the AP will be watching.

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