By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
The Cats have navigated the first 9 games with only one defeat, at the hands of #5 Kansas by 4 points in the Champions Classic one month ago today. The Cats disposed of every other early season opponent. While the current wire service polls have the Cats ranked in the top 10, I believe these lofty rankings are the equivalent of fools’ gold. These Cats have simply not played well enough on a sustained basis to justify even a top 25 ranking because despite the 8-1 record, the Cats’ strength of schedule is #228 per Pomeroy’s data. The Cats’ current ANE ranks #51.
This Saturday marks several transition points for this basketball season and team. Saturday marks the end of the final exam week for the fall semester, thus the beginning of Camp Cal. In addition, when Virginia Tech runs into Rupp Arena on Saturday, the strength of the Kentucky schedule will instantly shift gears. Other than Kansas, the highest ranked UK opponent thus far has been #71 Vermont followed by #137 ETSU. The average ranking of the Cats’ first 9 opponents has been 158.
Virginia Tech will waltz into Rupp on Saturday as the #15 team (ANE) and the most powerful offense in the country, averaging over 95 ppg. The Cats’ schedule then takes the Cats to a neutral location for #79 UCLA, back home for #39 Louisville, and then the SEC schedule, which appears daunting at this stage of the season. The weakest opponent remaining on the schedule (Vanderbilt) is #141, and the average rank of all remaining opponents is 53. The Cats will face 13 opponents who currently have higher ANE values over the remaining 22 games.
Beginning Saturday, the Cats’ schedule shifts gears from low range into a higher range. Will the Cats also elevate their play to match the higher speed of their opponents?
Last week, prior to the Cats’ excursion to New York City, Coach Calipari warned the Big Blue Nation that mighty Monmouth would present a stern challenge to the Cats. However, such a warning about the #159 Hawks seemed completely out of place. Today, if Coach Calipari does not issue a real warning about the challenge that Virginia Tech will present in Rupp Arena on Saturday, then I will.
Virginia Tech brings a 9-1 record into Rupp. Unlike the Cats who have handled each of their cupcake opponents with victories, the Hokies must explain how they lost to #225 Saint Louis by 6 on a neutral court on November 16. Furthermore, Virginia Tech needed overtime to get a 3 point win at #120 Mississippi in the Hokies’ only road game. This loss, and their struggles at Mississippi are not simply chinks in their armor but a completely inexplicable loss by a team that has otherwise steam rolled its way through nine other opponents by an average margin of 97-70. While the Kentucky schedule thus far has been very weak, the Virginia Tech schedule has been anemic, at #340 (out of 351). This explains some of these gaudy margins, but not all. The Hokies’ ANE is 0.270 ppp, #14 in the nation as they prepare to face the Cats at Rupp.
In summary, the Hokies have two low level outliers out of 10 starts and the Cats have 2 exceptionally high performances (Kansas and UIC) out of 9 starts.
The Adjusted Net Efficiency (ANE) analysis for this match up indicates a 6 point Kentucky loss to Virginia Tech, in a game played at 77 possessions, 81-75. Pomeroy sees this game with Kentucky having the 6-point advantage, 81-75 played at a pace of 73 possessions.
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