Sunday, February 28, 2016

SEC Update

For the last 50 years or -- ever since it became clear that Vandy just wasn't competitive with Tennessee in football -- the big sports event of the year at Vanderbilt has been UK's annual trip to Memorial Gym.  But the Dores have had bad luck against Coach Cal.  Check out these scores (home team listed first):

2/20/2010:  Vanderbilt 56 - 58 Kentucky
2/12/2011:  Vanderbilt 81 - 77 Kentucky
2/11/2012:  Vanderbilt 63 - 69 Kentucky
1/10/2013:  Vanderbilt 58 - 60 Kentucky
1/11/2014:  Vanderbilt 62 - 71 Kentucky

And then UK didn't come to Memorial last year.  So while Vandy did eliminate UK in the 2012 and 2013 SEC Tournaments, the Dores were only 1-4 against Coach Cal on their home floor.  That marked a big change for Vandy, which went 5-1 at home against UK from 2004 to 2009.

But yesterday Vandy turned the tables on Kentucky, pounding them 74-62.  Vandy lost their first three games in Conference Play, but have gone 10-3 since.  Road teams in the SEC are now a dreadful 31-81, and UK hasn't done too much better -- the Cats are 3-5 on the road in SEC play.  Unfortunately for UK, they still have one more road game -- at Florida, which is always a tough place for the Cats.  Plus, the Gators are another bubble team that needs a win over UK to make the Tournament.

Meanwhile, Texas A & M is rolling again.  The Aggies put up their fourth straight win, and they have now caught UK at the top of the standings.  Furthermore, while UK finishes with a road game at Florida and a home game against LSU, TAMU has an easier finish -- at Auburn and home to Vandy.  Ken Pom gives UK a 49.3 percent chance of winning its last two SEC games -- but he gives TAMU a 53.3 percent chance of doing the same.  And, of course, the Aggies hold the tie-breaker because of their (extremely controversial) win over UK last Saturday.

So how do we judge this UK team?  One way to do it would be to take UK's offensive efficiency in conference play, and subtract its defensive efficiency.  This would discount non-conference games -- when this young team was still figuring itself out -- and would allow for a comparison with prior Calipari teams.  In 16 SEC games so far, UK has an offensive efficiency of 116.4 and a defensive efficiency of 99.0, for a difference of 17.4.  Here's how that compares to Coach Cal's other UK teams:

2016:  116.4 - 99.0 = 17.4
2015:  115.4 - 88.9 = 26.5 (NCAA Final Four)
2014:  108.9 - 100.6 = 8.3 (NCAA runner-up)
2013:  105.0 - 101.7 = 3.3 (missed the NCAA's)
2012:  120.4 - 93.5 = 26.9 (NCAA Champions)
2011:  109.9 - 98.4 = 11.5 (NCAA Final Four)
2010:  107.9 - 94.0 = 13.9 (NCAA Elite Eight)

OK, now this is a very interesting chart.  In the first place, we can see that this year's team is really good on offense -- only the 2012 Champions had a more efficient offense in SEC play.  That is a tribute to Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, who are make up one of the best back courts UK has ever had.  (Yesterday they had 45 of UK's 62 points, even though Ulis went 0-7 from three-point range).

UK's defense, on the other hand, is not at the level of its powerhouse teams in 2010, 2012, or 2015.  The defensive problems really show up at the free throw line.  Last year, only 34.4 percent of UK's defensive possessions in the SEC ended with free throws -- they were 3d in the league in that statistic.  In 2012, when the Cats had Anthony Davis -- who was amazingly good at blocking shots without committing fouls -- only 24.3 percent of UK's SEC defensive possessions ended at the line.  But this year, the other team is getting to the line 46.6 percent of the time -- Georgia is the only team in the SEC that sends its opponents to the foul line more frequently.

Some of that may be due to the terrible officiating UK usually faces on the road, but my guess is that Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, and Skal Labissiere are likely to end up in foul trouble in the NCAA's as well -- they are both awkward and aggressive, which tends to attract a lot of whistles.  On the other hand, this team can easily come out and go, say 10-18 from three-point range -- and that will give them a chance against almost anyone.

The bottom line is that because UK has lost so many games, they will be given a really low seed and will have a difficult time making it out of the first weekend.  (I'm guessing we'll get matched up with Indiana.)  The Cats almost lost both of their first two tournament games in 2011, and they were almost eliminated in the second round in 2014.  This could be the year they don't survive that difficult draw.  But by the numbers outlined above, they are actually Coach Cal's third-best team since he came to Lexington.  If they can get to the Sweet 16, they will have a puncher's chance against almost everyone.

Here are the standings.  Notice that in a league where it's almost impossible to win on the road, lots of teams end up bunched together in the middle of the pack.  Notice also that the battle for the league title is wide open:

10.  Kentucky:  11-5
24.  Texas A & M:  11-5

22.  Vanderbilt:  10-6
53.  S. Carolina:  10-6
73.  Louisiana St:  10-6

44.  Florida:  8-8
67.  Arkansas:  8-8
79.  Georgia:  8-8
81.  Alabama:  8-8
87.  Mississippi:  8-8

71.  Mississippi St:  6-10
109.  Tennessee:  6-10

186.  Auburn:  5-11

175.  Missouri:  3-13

By the way, Mississippi State was ranked 179 at the end of last season.  In one year, Ben Howland has moved them up by 108 points.  That's really impressive.

Meanwhile, Alabama has gone from 57th last year to 81st under new coach Avery Johnson.  In six seasons in Tuscaloosa, Anthony Grant had only one team that was ranked that low.  I still think Johnson was an interesting hire, but this is trend we will want to watch.

Two years ago, Tennessee was ranked 7th in the country at the end of the season, and went to the Sweet 16.  But the UT fans didn't like Coach Cuonzo Martin, so he decamped for Cal-Berkeley.  This year, he's moved the Golden Bears up to number 26 in the country.  Meanwhile, UT fell to 89 last year under Donnie Tyndall, and the Vols are now 109 under Rick Barnes.  My guess is that Barnes is tearing everything down in a rebuild, and that UT will get much better next year.  But this is yet another trend worth watching.

The Auburn fans have got to be wondering about what Bruce Pearl is doing.  In 2014, Tony Barbee's last year, Auburn was ranked 129.  Last year, Pearl took them to a ranking of 147.  Now they're at 186.  Again, I'm sure Pearl is doing a teardown.  But he didn't have any teams this bad when he was at UT.

Meanwhile, look at the job Billy Kennedy is doing at A & M:

2012:  119
2013:  105
2014:  121
2015:  62
2016:  24

That's a good trend, and my guess is that our old friend Rick Stansbury (who used to coach Mississippi State, and who is now a TAMU assistant) deserves at least some of the credit.

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