By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
One of my favorite moments each year occurs when UK releases it full schedule for the upcoming UK basketball season. Well, UK released the full schedule yesterday when the SEC published the full SEC schedule. Now we know whom, when, and where UK will play its 31 regular season games in 2018-19. There are the usual mix of 13 non-conference opponents and the 13 SEC opponents for an 18 game conference schedule.
Let us play a little “What If” for the upcoming season based on this schedule.
We need a starting point for the “What If” game, and I am using each teams’ 2017-18 ending values of ANE based on an assumption that these teams will not change. We all know the fallacy of this assumption, and need look no further than UK to prove the fallacy. Nevertheless, we need a starting point for UK and each of the 2018-19 opponents.
Based on UK’s Bahamas’ performance levels, it is safe to say today that the 2019 UK team will perform at a higher level than the 2018 level of 0.20 ppp, and the only remaining question for UK is how much will its ANE rise in 2019.
It is equally safe to say that some of UK’s 2018-19 opponents will also improve this season from last, but it is equally safe to say that others will be weaker in 2019 than they were in 2018. Many of the opponents, however, will play at a level in 2019 that is very consistent with their 2018 levels. We cannot know today which of these 26 opponents will improve, decline, or remain about the same. However, based on the relative consistency of UK’s SOS year to year with similar scheduling, it is safe to say that in the aggregate, the overall SOS in 2019 will be about the same as 2018.
Last year, the Cats finished the regular season 21-10 before winning the SEC Tournament (3-0) and falling out of the NCAA in the Sweet 16 (2-1). Based on the starting point against this year’s schedule, the projected regular season record is 23-8, 14-4.
For the “What If” game, what will happen to the projected 2018-19 record if UK’s performance increased to a level similar to 2016 (0.253 ppp), 2010 (0.281 ppp), 2012 (0.337 ppp) and 2015 (0.408 ppp).
This is not rocket science, and the eight games projected as losses with the “no change” condition emerge as decisive for this season. These key games should come as a surprise to no one who follows the Cats and college basketball: Duke and North Carolina at neutral locations, road games at Louisville, Auburn, Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee, and the game against Kansas at Rupp. For this reason, 8 losses this season would define a worst case scenario.
If UK improves modestly to a level similar to the 2016 team, Louisville, Florida, Missouri, and Kansas fall from the list of projected losses. However, the projected margins of victory in those four games remain close, e.g. less than 4 points, at 2 ½, 2 ½, ½, and 2 ½ points respectively, keeping each of those games in play but a projected split of the 8 critical games, 4-4.
If UK improves to a level similar to the 2010 team, the only projected loss remaining on the schedule is the game against Duke on a neutral court. Furthermore, four games are projected wins with margins less than 4 points include at Tennessee, at Florida, at Auburn, and against North Carolina on a neutral court. At this level of play, 3 of the original 8 games shift into a relatively safe column, leaving 5 games to define the season, and a projected record in those five games of 4-1.
In my opinion, the UK season will be defined by the eight games I identified above with the most important games on the schedule being these five: Duke, North Carolina, at Tennessee, at Florida, and at Auburn.
The final two “What If” tests are for fun of course, but these outcomes are not out of the question. In fact, both of these scenarios are in play. This UK team outperformed the 2015 team’s Bahamas tour, but only played four games instead of six games in 2014. In my opinion, if this team improves to true championship contender form similar to either 2012 or 2015, then a 31-0 regular season is in play. At the 2012 level, there is only one game left on this schedule that is in play, and it is the opener against Duke with a 1 ½ point margin for the Cats.
We all realize these “What If” games are amusing, but do not say this is what will happen. These “What If” games provide pure entertainment value only at a time when nothing is happening with the program as the new school year begins. However, once games do begin in November, we will have clarity by Thanksgiving relative to the slate of opponents. However, we will know about our team on November 6, when their opener against Duke is final.
The projections in these what if conditions against Duke range from Duke by 5 to UK by 6. What will the actual game result be on November 6?
When we learn the answer to this question, we will have as early a measure of UK as we have seen in years. Here is my “Crystal Ball” take on this key game based on UK’s Bahamas tour and Duke’s Canadian tour.
UK by 10, 80 – 70, in a game played at a pace of about 75 possessions. UK’s offense will be impossible for Duke to stop. Furthermore, UK will actually defend Williamson. UK will allow Barrett to consume over 50 percent of Duke’s possessions regardless of the number of points he manages to put on the board while Duke’s remaining circus clowns run around in small circles for the entire game. Then, Duke will take its 3-ring circus back to their locker room.
Buckle up Big Blue Fans and enjoy the ride!!!!