By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
Coach Calipari is putting the finishing touches on his 9th UK basketball team, and guided his team to the SEC Tournament’s Championship game for the 8th time in those nine seasons. In the seven previous appearances in the Sunday Classic, Cal’s Cats have carried home the hardware five times.
Sunday afternoon, the Cats will face regular season co-champion Tennessee with the SEC Tournament Championship the prize. The Wildcats are no stranger to the SEC Tournament Championship game. Since 1979, when the conference restarted the tournament, the Cats have played in 25 of the 39 championship games, winning 18 times and losing 7 times.
That is a 72 percent winning percentage in the championship game. As noted previously, during the eight Calipari years, UK has appeared in this game seven times, winning 5 for a winning percentage of 71.4 percent.
Kentucky and Tennessee are not basketball strangers, but oddly, they have not collided in the SEC tournament since 2010, Coach Calipari’s first season at UK.
This season, Tennessee swept the two game home and home series from the Cats. In the first game, in Knoxville, the Cats led the Volunteers by 8 points, 37-29, at halftime. However, the second half was an entirely different story, as the Volunteers outscored the Cats 47-30 for an 11 point win. That game was a turning point for both teams.
Tennessee had opened their SEC season 0-2 including a home loss to Auburn while the Cats had opened 2-0 including a road win at LSU. If the Cats could have escaped Knoxville with another road win while handing the Volunteers their 3rd consecutive loss and second consecutive home loss, the prospects of each team, moving forward, would have appeared entirely different. But that was not to be the case.
In the second game, at Rupp, the Volunteers caught the Cats in the midst of their lowest point, the second loss of what would become a four game losing streak. Even though the Cats made a valiant effort, Tennessee got out of Rupp Arena with a 2 point win after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over twice in the last minutes, and Tennessee converted a 2 point deficit into their 2 point win. After leaving Rupp, Tennessee lost two of their next 3 games, at Alabama by 28 and at Georgia by 11. Thereafter, the Volunteers finished with seven consecutive wins, including the two wins in the tournament to advance into the championship game.
Granted, Tennessee is putting a strong finish on their clearly strong season. However, few teams in college basketball have been playing any better basketball over the last 9 games since the loss to Tennessee at Rupp. Yes, the Cats did stub their toes at Florida last Saturday, but over the final nine games, including the losses at Florida, at Auburn, and at Texas A&M, the Cats have played with an average ANE of 0.280 ppp, which is considerably higher than the team’s season long average ANE of 0.204 ppp.
In contrast, Tennessee over their last 9 games, since their victory at Rupp, has played with an average ANE of 0.160 ppp which is considerably lower than their team’s season long average ANE of 0.232 ppp.
Since I am attached to my “numbers” at the hip, I will remain true to form and report that based on these numbers, Tennessee is favored to beat the Cats by 3 points, 73-70. However, based on the recent performance by both teams as their seasons moved toward this moment, these limited scope numbers indicate a Kentucky win over the Volunteers by 9. My head stays with the traditional numbers, and my heart beats with the more limited numbers, more favorable to our Cats.
I say we all sit back, let the boys get it on and let’s enjoy this one from the heart.