By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
About a month ago, the Cats strutted into Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena with a 12-2, 2-0 record, fresh off a road win at LSU. Tennessee stepped on their home court that night having lost their first two SEC games including a 10-point home loss to Auburn four days earlier. The stakes on the line in that game were huge for the Volunteers because a second conference home loss to contenders would effectively knock Tennessee out of this season’s SEC championship race. However, the game presented great opportunity for the Cats rather than risks because a second SEC road win would have propelled the Cats into a very strong leadership position for this year’s conference crown.
As I recall, everyone and his brother knew Tennessee would lay it all on the line, and the big question in the lead up to this game is whether the young Cats could respond in kind. The Cats came out of the gates in the first half and led most of the half by 3 to 9 points, and returned to the locker room leading by 8 points, 37-29. The second half was all Tennessee. They only needed 2:25 to tie the score at 39-39, and after playing close to the under 12 media timeout, the Cats fell behind by 10, 60-50, and never got back into the game. Tennessee saved its season and the Cats limped back to Rupp trying to understand why they failed to secure the road win in Knoxville.
Since that encounter on January 6, each team has played 8 games. Tennessee has won 7 times, losing at Missouri by 2 points and beating Vanderbilt twice, Texas A&M, at South Carolina, at Iowa State, and LSU and Mississippi in Knoxville. The last three victories have been by 23, 23, and 33 points respectively. The Cats have won 5 and lost 3 times since losing at Tennessee. Tennessee has played itself into sole possession of 2nd place in the SEC race, chasing Auburn and Kentucky is in a struggle to secure one of the four double byes for the SEC Tournament with Florida, Alabama, Missouri, and Mississippi State.
As these same two teams prepare for their rematch at Rupp Arena on Tuesday, the tables have turned. Kentucky has one home loss to a contender (Florida) and a second home loss to Tennessee will all but close the book on this year’s SEC race for the Cats even if Auburn should experience a complete collapse down the stretch. Tennessee on the other hand can move its hopes of catching Auburn up a couple of notches with a road win over the Cats.
The seminal question a month ago was whether the Cats would match the Volunteers intensity. Unfortunately, these tables have not turned, and the question for this rematch again focuses on the Cats’ willingness to leave it all on the floor, between the lines of Rupp Arena to knock off Tennessee.
Following the West Virginia game when it still seemed possible that this team would actually turn the corner, I cautioned that the answer to this riddle must wait for the results of the next three games and suggested the following criteria:
1. Does this team manhandle a bad Vanderbilt team at Rupp, or does this team dance around with the Commodores to a lackadaisical win?
2. Does this team go to Missouri and control the game and environment as they did in the second half at West Virginia, or will they be a shrinking violet at another SEC road venue?
3. Does this team deliver a measurable payback to Tennessee when they come into Rupp, of will they allow the Volunteers to have their own way with them like they did in Knoxville a few weeks ago?
The Cats failed the first two of these three tests, and I do not believe anything short of a double digit win over a very strong Tennessee tea will salvage a passing grade for test #3.
Tennessee’s 17-5, 7-3 record has produced an ANE of 0.261 ppp (#8) by playing a schedule with a strength of 0.102 ppp (#3). The Cats’ 17-6, 6-4 record has produced an ANE of 0.178 ppp (#36) by playing a schedule with a strength of 0.090 ppp (#12). The ANE analysis gives the edge to Tennessee, despite the Cats’ home court advantage, of 1 point, 73-72, in a game played at a pace of 72 possessions. Pomeroy has the Tennessee favored by 1, 71-70 with a pace of 67 possessions. Vegas opened today with Kentucky a 1 1/2 point favorite.
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