Sunday, February 18, 2024

Auburn 59 - 70 Kentucky (Win No. 2,393)

Coach John Calipari was feeling very good after last night's win in Auburn, and he told the press to keep criticizing him -- just leave the players alone.  I've criticized him a lot this year -- and over the last four years -- and I don't apologize for any of it.  I think Kentucky was very poorly coached down the stretch in the loss at home to Florida.  I think they looked hopelessly overmatched at home against Tennessee -- something that should never happen.  And I think they threw away a home game against Gonzaga that they should have won.  I also think that Cal's approach is outmoded, and that his young guys -- no matter how talented they are -- cannot reach the levels we expect when they're going up against the type of bruisers you see at Tennessee and UConn.  And for all these reasons, I thought they were going to get smoked yesterday down in Auburn.

They did not.  Auburn got their usual edge at home from the officials -- they shot 30 FT's to only 24 for the Cats, even though UK led most of the game.  Justin Edwards fouled out in only 18 minutes of play.  Rob Dillingham picked up four fouls in only 18 minutes.  And Tre Mitchell didn't play at all due to the shoulder injury he suffered against Ole Miss.  But Auburn fell behind 19-9 after 10 minutes, and could never get closer than five points the rest of the way.  UK led 39-29 at the half, and rolled home with a shockingly easy 70 to 59 win.  It ended a 16-game home winning streak for Auburn.  It was UK's first win at Auburn since 2019 -- the Cats had lost three in a row down there.  On the whole, it was a stunning result.

Cal, of course, wants us to believe that this game is a precursor of things to come.  And maybe it is, but it's too early to say.  What strikes me about UK's last two wins is that Ole Miss went 5-22 from 3-point range, while Auburn went 4-22 from 3-point range.  That's 9-44, or 20.5 percent.  Now here's the big question:  Is that simply good luck, or have the Cats actually figured out how to defend the 3-pointer.

Remember that the Cats have lost four SEC games.  In those four games, their opponents shot 47-114 from three point range, a mark of 41.2 percent.  In their eight SEC wins, their opponents have shot 57-207 from behind the arc, an average of 27.5 percent.  In fact, in none of Kentucky's SEC wins did their opponent make more than a third of its 3-point tries -- while in each of its SEC losses, the opponents made at least 37.5 percent of its three-point shots.

One way to look at these statistics is to conclude that if you don't make your three-point shots against the Cats, their offense is good enough to beat you.  On the other hand, if you do make your three-point shots, even their offense (combined with their poor execution down the stretch) won't be enough to keep pace.  If this conclusion is correct, then the Cats were lucky to catch Ole Miss and Auburn on days where their outside shooters were cold.  But another way to look at it is that against Ole Miss and Auburn, the Cats made some type of adjustment that prevented the barrage of three-pointers we saw from Florida and Tennessee.

It it's an adjustment, then the Cats could go on a run.  They are ranked 21 on Ken Pom:  7th on offense and 80th on defense.  They are also 273d in luck.  If their defense continues to improve -- and if they could actually win some close games for a change -- they could do some damage.  But it's been five years since the Cats went to the Elite Eight, and I'm sure Cal will understand if I conclude that seeing is believing.

We'll learn a lot this week.  On Wednesday, the Cats have L.S.U. on the road, and K-Pom gives them a 63 percent chance of victory.  Then on Saturday, they come home to play Alabama, and K-Pom only gives them a 43 percent chance to win that game.  In other words, he thinks there's only a 27.1 percent chance that UK goes 2-0 this week.  If they win both games, that would be a strong sign that they are underrated.  But I warn you:  I've watched K-Pom for over ten years, and he rarely underrates the Cats.


  1. And Eric is right about Western: the Hilltoppers picked up their five consecutive win on Saturday, beating New Mexico State 72 to 58 in Diddle Arena. They are now 19-7 overall, and 8-4 in Conference USA. The top of C-USA looks like this:

    La Tech: 8-3
    Sam Houston St: 8-3
    W. Kentucky: 8-4

    No one else in the C-USA has a winning conference record.

    1. Ken Pom has Western at number 139. He thinks they will finish 21-9 and 10-6.

  2. The top of the SEC looks like this:

    Alabama: 10-2
    Tennessee: 9-3
    Auburn: 9-4
    S. Carolina: 9-4

  3. Ken Pom has UK at number 21 in the country. He projects them to go 22-9 and 12-6.

  4. As I feared, UK's recent success was primarily a matter of luck in catching teams who missed a lot of 3-point shots. Tonight LSU went 9-20 from behind the arc, Kentucky blew a 15 point lead, and the Cats lost again.

  5. After the Auburn game, Cal said he wanted people to keep criticizing him. After this game, he's going to get his wish.

  6. The Cats fall to 18-8 and 8-5. They are 23d on Ken Pom: 9th on offense, 77th on defense, and 309th on luck.

  7. Kentucky's luck score since COVID:

    2021: 354
    2022: 279
    2023: 239
    2024: 309

    That's a lot of heartbreaking losses.

  8. So here's my suggestion: go listen to Beyonce's new country song and start looking forward to better weather in the spring.

    1. Basketball is great for getting through February, but February's almost over.

  9. Here's the 3-point shooting percentage of UK's opponents since SEC play began:

    Fla (Away): 29.0 percent (UK WIN)
    Mizzou (H): 28.6 percent (WIN)
    Tex A & M (A): 37.5 percent (LOSS)
    Miss St (H): 33.3 percent (WIN)
    Ga (H): 29.2 percent (WIN)
    S. Car. (A): 45.8 percent (LOSS)
    Ark (A): 21.1 percent (WIN)
    Fla (H): 42.9 percent (LOSS)
    Tenn (H): 40.0 percent (LOSS)
    Vandy (A): 32.4 percent (WIN)
    Gonz (H): 22.2 percent (LOSS)
    Miss (H): 22.7 percent (WIN)
    Aub (A): 18.2 percent (WIN)
    LSU (A): 45.0 percent (LOSS)

  10. It's very simple: If you make at least 37.5 percent of your 3-point shots against Kentucky, you will win. If you make less than 1/3 of your 3-point shots, you'll probably lose. (Gonzaga won anyway, because they outrebounded Kentucky 43 to 31, and shot 56 percent from 2-point range).

    1. Today, Alabama made 35.3 percent of its 3-point shots: 35.3 percent. That was not enough, and the Cats rolled 117 to 95.

  11. Of course, on paper UK could have won four of the games they lost. They could have taken the last shot in regulation at A & M, but turned it over. They had a 3-point lead with 10 seconds left against Florida at home, but let the Gators hit a wide open three. They had a chance to beat Gonzaga, but couldn't get off a good shot. And, of course, last night they took the lead with 10 seconds left, but let LSU hit a buzzer beater.

    1. K-Pom says this sort of thing is "luck," and maybe there are teams where it is. But no one who's watched UK for the last four years believes it is luck. Down the stretch, the Cats just fall apart. If you can keep it close with four minutes left, they will usually find a way to lose.

  12. So what's left for this season? It's possible, of course, that the Cats have a complete meltdown, give up on themselves, and fall apart. Wagner, who used to be the best player on the team, and who hasn't had a good game since they played Georgia, is an example of what that could look like. But even if they pull themselves together, it seems obvious that they will keep losing every game where the other team makes 3-pointers. And that means that UK fans really don't have much to anticipate, other than pain.

  13. Final observation. According to Ken Pom, in SEC Kentucky has an offensive rating of 114.3 and a defensive rating of 108.0, for a difference of 6.3. Since 1999, the Cats have had three other teams where the difference between their offensive and defensive efficiencies in SEC plays was close to 6.3:

    Last year, the difference was 5.1. The Cats went 12-6 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

    In 2006, the difference was 5.3. The Cats went 9-7 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

    In 2007, the difference was 7.9. The Cats went 9-7 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

    In other words, Cal's last two seasons -- this year and last year -- are shaping up to look almost exactly like Tubby's last two seasons (2006 and 2007).

  14. Tubby's last team in 2007 was actually better than this year's team -- Tubby's team finished 13th in Ken Pom, while this team is at 23. But like this year's team, the 2007 team lost a whole series of close games:

    1/20/07: Kentucky 67 - 72 Vanderbilt
    1/24/07: Georgia 78 - 69 Kentucky (OT)
    2/10/07: Kentucky 61 - 64 Florida
    2/13/07: Tennessee 89 - 85 Kentucky
    2/25/07: Vanderbilt 67 - 65 Kentucky
    3/9/07: Kentucky 82 - 84 Mississippi St. (SEC quarter-finals)

    By the time they got to the tournament, the fan base was worn out. Kansas crushed them in the second round -- 88 to 76 -- and that was it.

  15. And the fans were not wrong. Tubby coached 15 more seasons after he left Kentucky. In those 15 seasons, he went 1-4 in the NCAA Tournament.

  16. With Kentucky's win today over Alabama, the Cats now have the following rankings on Ken Pom:

    Overall: 17 (+20.57) (highest ranking for UK since they lost to South Carolina)
    Offense: 8 (121.8)
    Defense: 78 (101.2)
    Luck: 306

    Cats go to Starkville on Tuesday night for a huge game with Mississippi State.

    1. Mississippi State has won five in a row, and last night they drilled LSU 87 to 67 in Baton Rouge. Ken Pom says Mississippi State is the number-28 team in the country, and he has them beating UK 79 to 77 on Tuesday night.

    2. I'm extremely pessimistic about this Mississippi State game.

  17. Kentucky is now shooting 41.0 percent from 3-point range, and that leads the whole country.

  18. Kentucky is now 4-6 in "A" games:

    11/14/23: Kansas 89 - 84 Kentucky (LOSS)
    12/16/23: Kentucky 87 - 83 N. Carolina (WIN)
    01/06/24: Florida 85 - 87 Kentucky (WIN)
    01/13/24: Texas A & M 97 - 92 Kentucky (OT) (LOSS)
    01/23/24: S. Carolina 79 - 62 Kentucky (LOSS)
    02/03/24: Kentucky 92 - 103 Tennessee (LOSS)
    02/10/24: Kentucky 85 - 89 Gonzaga (LOSS)
    02/17/24: Auburn 59 - 70 Kentucky (WIN)
    02/21/24: Louisiana St. 75 - 74 Kentucky (LOSS)
    02/24/24: Kentucky 117 - 95 Alabama (WIN)

  19. Alabama is now 11-3 in the SEC; UK is 9-5. South Carolina moves to 10-4 with a 72-59 win at Ole Miss.

  20. Top of the SEC looks like this:

    Tennessee: 11-3
    Alabama: 11-3
    Auburn: 10-4
    S. Carolina: 10-4