By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
Just two weeks ago, the chatter across the college basketball landscape was whether the 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats would be able to get enough wins to make the NCAA field. Many, including me, had all but written off this season as a bad sample from the OAD era. After all, this team had lost three in a row, something that no Calipari led UK team had ever done, and they were poised to lose an unprecedented fourth consecutive game at Auburn.
Yes, the Cats did in fact lose that fourth game to Auburn, but something happened in that little town on the plains that nearly went totally unnoticed. However, Coach Calipari remarked after the loss that his team had made great strides against Auburn. He also said he had absolutely no concern about this team or its NCAA prospects.
At the time, his confidence seemed to be nothing but a classic example of coach-speak, but this team has now won its last 3 games by greater than anticipated margins.
This team won seven in a row in November and December between losses to Kansas and UCLA on neutral courts. However, with rare exception, the Cats consistently under performed expectations against the likes of Harvard, Troy, IUPUFW, and Monmouth. Since those days of nibbling on cupcakes, the Cats have won three in a row twice. They blew out Louisville followed by narrow wins over Georgia and LSU.
Then about a month later, they beat Mississippi State and Vanderbilt at Rupp around a huge unexpected win at West Virginia. This team is now poised to win a fourth consecutive game against top 100 opponents when it faces Ole Miss on Wednesday in the home finale.
However, there is much more about this current winning streak than the number of consecutive wins. Going back to the Vanderbilt game in which the Cats were frankly fortunate to leave Rupp with a W, game ANE for that game was a meager 0.050 points per possession. Despite losing the next four games, the Cats began to improve their game performance levels, to 0.099 ppp at Missouri, 0.107 ppp against Tennessee, 0.098 ppp at Texas A&M, and 0.164 ppp at Auburn. T
hese results show steady sustained improvement by this team through their painful four game losing streak. However, their growth continued to 0.190 ppp against Alabama, and an amazing 0.470 ppp at Arkansas, followed by 0.412 ppp against Missouri last Saturday at Rupp Arena.
This rise in my opinion is now an established trend, and this team has finally “turned the corner.” It’s “light” has finally illuminated. The only questions now is how long can this team sustain this higher level of play, and how far will they be able to ride that crest into March Madness?
This surge by the Cats is already sufficient, in my opinion, has lifted this team to the third highest ANE in the SEC behind Auburn and Tennessee. This team is now poised to secure one of the four double byes in the upcoming SEC Tournament, which is nearly essential if the Cats are to compete for that tournament championship. The team’s NCAA bracketology outlook has similarly been rising.
The SEC standings have a 4-team log jam in 3rd place with 9-7 records with 2 games to play. Kentucky is in this group with Florida, Arkansas, and Mississippi State. If the Cats finish in a tie with either Arkansas or Mississippi State, the Cats own the tie-breaker due to their regular season wins over each. Florida, however, holds the tie-breaker over the Cats at this time, and even if the Cats beat the Gators in their rematch, the Gators hold the tie-breaker based on their win over Auburn.
Mississippi State will finish their season at home against Tennessee and at LSU. Tennessee beat Mississippi State Tuessday.
Arkansas finishes with Auburn at home and at Missouri. Arkansas beat Auburn Tuesday.
If both Mississippi State and Arkansas finish 1-1, and the Cats finish 1-1, then the Cats secure the fourth seed in the SEC tournament. If the Cats finish 2-0, it does not matter what Mississippi State or Arkansas do, and the Cats will be the #4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The Cats will have to lose both games and either Mississippi State or Arkansas win at least one of their games for the Cats to fall out of this precious #4 SEC Seed.
Therefore, a win on Wednesday over Mississippi will lock up the #4 seed in this year’s SEC Tournament for the Cats.
Mississippi’s 12-17, 5-11 record has produced an ANE of 0.078 ppp (#98) by playing a schedule with a strength of 0.102 ppp (#14). The Cats’ 20-9, 9-7 record has produced an ANE of 0.192 ppp (#25) by playing a schedule with a strength of 0.109 ppp (#9). The ANE analysis gives the edge to Kentucky by 14 points, 81-67, in a game played at a pace of 74 possessions. Pomeroy has the Kentucky favored by 11, 82-71 with a pace of 70 possessions. Vegas opened today with Kentucky a 11 ½ point favorite.
Use the following link to see how other UK fans handicap this game at 247Sports, The Cats Pause message board:
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