Friday, January 1, 2016

Kentucky 75 - 73 Louisville (No. 2,188)

The last time we checked in on Kentucky, they were 7-0, they had already beaten Duke, and they were the number one team in the nation.  But over the next four games, this is what happened (home teams listed first):

12/03:  UCLA 87 - 77 Kentucky
12/09:  Kentucky 88 - 67 E. Kentucky
12/12:  Kentucky 72 - 58 Arizona St.
12/19:  Kentucky 67 - 74 Ohio St. (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

That left the Cats with a record of 9-2 as they headed home to play a Louisville team that was 11-1, with its only loss coming at Michigan State by only four points.

Now there are Kentucky fans who don't think the Cats get much of a home court advantage.  They complain that the Blue Hairs close to the court don't cheer loudly enough, and that the fans don't make enough noise compared to other schools.  I can understand this.  The UK fan base is really two fan bases that have to work together.  In most Southern states -- like Alabama, for example -- the fans are divided between the liberal arts college and the engineering school.  The fans of the liberal arts college -- whether it's the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina, or the University of Virginia -- tend to have more money, and tend to be preppier and snobbier as a result.  The fans of the engineering school -- whether it's Auburn, North Carolina State, or Virginia Tech -- tend to be scrappier and more willing to show passion.  In Kentucky, of course, both the liberal arts types and the engineering types both root for U.K., which is one of the reasons we have the best fan base in the country.  (Other states where the fan bases are united behind a single school -- such as Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, and Louisiana -- are also known for great fan support.)  But the liberal arts types tend to be more likely to have tickets to Rupp Arena, and so Rupp tends to reflect their style of fandom -- which is, of course, annoying to those fans who would prefer a different style.

On the other hand, there is literally no evidence that U.K. doesn't get much of a home court advantage.  The Wildcats' all-time record at Rupp Arena is 537-64, which translates into a winning percentage of .894.  That's really good.  And almost every season, it seems as though the Cats pull off a huge victory on the home floor.  And on St. Stephen's Day, that's exactly what they did to Louisville.  They got no help from Isaiah Briscoe, who missed the game with an ankle injury.  And they got almost no help from Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere, who combined to play 26 minutes, and who put up the following combined numbers:  5 points and 5 rebounds, with 1 of 7 shots from the field.  And even Jamal Murray, who scored 31 points against Ohio State, making 7 of 9 three-pointers and looking like the second coming of Stephen Curry, was off his game -- he went 0-6 from two-point range, 3-8 from three-point range, and 3-6 from the line, finishing with only 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 turnovers.

But Calipari is all about finding a way to win, and by golly, that's exactly what the Cats did.  Tyler Ulis, who has been cold all year, went 7-12 from the field (including 4-7 from three-point range), and had 8 assists to only 1 turnover.  Alex Poythress chipped in 17 points and 6 boards on 5-7 shooting.  Marcus Lee contributed 8 points and 7 boards, going 4-5 from the field.  And our old friend Dominique Hawkins had the best game of his career, making 3 of 4 three pointers and scoring 13 points in 26 vital minutes.  Furthermore, the Cats caught the Cardinals off guard at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, billowing out to a 52-36 lead that Louisville could never overcome.  And so the Cats are now 8-1 against Louisville since Coach Cal came to town, and U.K. is now 2-0 in the A.C.C., with wins over both Louisville and Duke.

It's not a breakthrough, however, and we shouldn't expect the Cats to flip the switch and look like they did last year.  Ken Pomeroy thinks the Cats will lose at least six more games before the season is over, and he's probably right.  Freshmen -- even talented freshmen like the ones U.K. has -- are almost never good at leading a team.  They don't know how hard they're supposed to play.  They tend to waste possessions early in the game, which you can't really afford to do.  They tend to get banged around and intimidated by older players.  And they can't adjust to the officiating, which varies from one game to the next.  It's just part of the learning curve.  We saw it in 2011, when the Cats went 22-8 in the regular season, and 10-6 in the S.E.C.  We saw it in 2013, when the Cats lost six games before an injury to Nerlens Noel wrecked their season.  We saw it in 2014, when the Cats went 22-9 in the regular season, and 12-6 in the S.E.C.  And we'll have to deal with it this year.  This doesn't mean all hope is lost -- U.K. went to the Final Four in 2011, and played for the National Championship in 2014.  But it means a rocky few months probably lie in store for us.

To get a sense of how U.K. is doing, let's look at their current numbers to the numbers the 2014 team put up before the N.C.A.A. Tournament began (according to Ken Pomeroy's invaluable site):

2016 team:
Overall ranking:  15
Adjusted offensive efficiency:  112.7 (25th in the country)
Adjusted defensive efficiency:  93.5 (19th in the country)

2014 team (before the N.C.A.A. Tournament began):
Overall ranking:  17
Adjusted offensive efficiency:  114.9 (19th in the country)
Adjusted defensive efficiency:  96.3 (37th in the country)

These numbers are remarkably similar.  However, it is worth noting that this year's team is doing better on defense than the team from two years ago.  That team, despite its run through the tourney, never got much better on defense -- they finished the year ranked 41st in adjusted defense.  The real breakthrough for the 2014 team came on the offensive end.  By the end of the Tournament, the Cats were 10th in the country on offense, with an adjusted efficiency score of 117.6.  If this year's team can show similar improvement on offense, we could really have a strong squad.

Is that possible?  I think it's very possible.  Through 12 games this year, the Cats are 254th in the country in three-point shooting percentage, and are a dreary 31.7 percent from beyond the arc.  Over a full season, that would represent U.K.'s worst three-point shooting percentage since 2002.  So the chances are that we will see some improvement in that area -- in fact, the hot three-point shooting against U of L (U.K. made 11-23 three's in that game) may be a sign of things to come.  The Cats are also making a lot of turnovers -- 18.5 percent of their possessions are turnovers, and they rank 168th in this category.  But this number may improve, as the freshmen get more cautious about holding onto the ball.

So we still have a lot to look forward to, even if we will go through some really frustrating performances before the season comes to an end.  And that's why it's so great that the Cats have those wins against Duke and Louisville -- they will help comfort us through the long road games still to come.

1 comment:

  1. I loved that line you had a couple of posts ago about Duke and birthday cake.