By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
Big Blue Fans, it is the last week of October, and that usually means interest in football has waned, Coach Calipari is warning the Big Blue Nation about their need for patience with a new group of players because it will take them until March to be ready for March. My goodness how the arrival of fall 2018 has turned usual conventions upside down. The football team currently stands at 6-1 with a legitimate opportunity to win the SEC East and Coach Calipari is warning the Big Blue Nation that his current team is “ahead more than he wants them to be in October.”
Coach, what is that? The Coach explained that the Bahamas trip “put us ahead more than I want to be. I don’t want us to look like it’s January in November because you can’t get better. You can’t — your team can’t keep improving,” Calipari said. “What we’ve tried to do here every year is play our best basketball in March. If you’re playing like this in November, how in the world are you going to get better? And if it is, it’s going to be just a little bit.”
Really coach? Do you also want to sell us some nice beachfront property in Florida?
Two Calipari teams jumped out of the gates in early November way ahead of the field. In 2012, the eventual NCAA Championship team started their first 5 games way ahead of the field with an ANE5 of 0.424 points per possession (ppp), and in 2015, the team that started 38-0 started with an opening 5 game ANE5 of 0.437 ppp. His other 7 teams had an ANE5 ranging from 0.075 ppp (2017-18) to 0.281 ppp (2010-11) with an average of 0.221 ppp. Coach, excuse me, but having a team playing well in November is NOT something to worry about, but having a team that struggles in November is.
Based on this team’s four game demolition derby it ran in the Bahamas in August, and the 200 collective points this team put on the board in the Blue-White game last night, this team is more akin to the 2012 and 2015 groups than any other assemblage of players that Coach Calipari has had to start a season.
This 13-player team consists of six true freshmen and one red shirt freshman, three sophomores and one red shirt sophomore, one walk on Junior, one walk on Senior, and one graduate transfer. The distribution of players by class this season is very similar to last year’s distribution. However, this roster differs from last year’s in the experience of the returning players and the addition of graduate transfer Reid Travis. Furthermore, unlike a year ago, every player on the roster is healthy and able to contribute.
Kentucky opponents in the preseason top 50 are #2 Duke in the first game, #54 Seton Hall, #3 North Carolina, #1 Kansas from the array of 13 non-conference opponents. In the SEC, the Cats will face #11 Tennessee twice, #17 Auburn twice, #19 Florida twice, #23 Mississippi State twice, #43 Missouri, # 48 Texas A&M, and #51 Alabama. That will be 15 (4 nonconference and 11 SEC) basketball games against teams in Pomeroy’s preseason top 50 (Top 54 actually). Last season, the Cats played 16 (5 nonconference and 11 SEC) regular season games against teams that ended the season in Pomeroy’s top 50 (Top 56 actually), with a record of 7-9 in those games. The 2018-19 Cats will face another very tough regular season schedule.
For the record, Pomeroy has tagged this UK team as the #7 team in the nation in the pre-season ratings. Pomeroy projects a 27-4 record against this schedule, with losses against Duke in the opener and against North Carolina on neutral courts, against Kansas at Rupp and at Tennessee. Given the strength that this team will bring to its opening game, I expect this team to beat Duke with relative ease on November 6, and I believe this team will be favored in every game it plays over the course of the season. When this team loses, and I refuse to say this team will not lose, it will be an upset.
On Friday night, Coach Calipari will see his players perform against a live opponent for the first time since August. These exhibition games will provide some additional input to Coach Calipari but not so much as most seasons given the August experience. The two traditional exhibition opponents are Transylvania at Rupp on October 26 and IU of Pennsylvania at Rupp on November 2. These exhibitions are the final tune ups for the season opener against #2 Duke in the Champions’ Classic in Indianapolis as the Cats prepare to open their quest for a return to the Final Four in search of the program’s 9th National Championship.
Let the journey begin with the exhibitions, just as it has every year within my memory.
Over the past 9 seasons, the Cats have averaged a 43 point victory over its first exhibition opponent (98-55) and for those same previous eight (8) seasons, the Cats have improved between their first and second exhibition games to a 60 point average margin (114-54). This and the second exhibition game the following Sunday are about effort and improvement. The measuring sticks are the margins of victory and the degree of improvement between the first and second starts. It is unclear how the bonus exhibition game against Morehead, sandwiched between the two traditional exhibitions will affect this relationship.
This will be Transy’s first appearance in Rupp against a Kentucky team since November 1, 2013, and their fourth such appearance of the Calipari Era. In the three prior exhibitions, the Cats have beaten Tansy 97-53 (2011), 74-28 (2012), and 76-42 (2013). This will be IUP’s first visit to Rupp Arena.
For the past nine “First Exhibitions” the opponents have been Campbell (74-38), Pikeville (97-66), Transy (97-53), Northern Kentucky (93-61), Transy (76-42), Pikeville (116-68), Ottawa (117-58), Clarion (108-51) and Thomas More (103-61). This year, based on how prior exhibition games have played out and the relative strength of Transy, this game shapes up to be a 50 point game, 104-54 if the Cats are on par with the previous nine Calipari led teams at the end of October.