By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
The Cats are taking a pre-Christmas trip to the windy city to face the North Carolina Tar Heels in this year’s version of the Champions’ Classic on CBS. The Cats have won all eight games they have played in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena and have lost both times Coach Calipari has escorted them to other locations to compete. Now the Cats play three in a row away from Rupp: North Carolina in Chicago, Louisville at the YUM Center, and at Alabama to open the 2019 SEC season.
The two losing road trips occurred to take on #1 Duke and #61 Seton Hall. #10 North Carolina is not quite as strong as #1 Duke, but the Tar Heels are much stronger than Seton Hall.
The Cats have been improving from their very weak first five games. After five games, the Cats’ ANE stood at 0.095 points per possession (ppp). This is the weakest ANE5 of the Calipari Era, a fact that I have pointed out frequently. Based on the prior 9 seasons, this slow start does not bode well for the Cats’ finish this season. However, the results of games 6 through 10 may be telling a slightly different story.
The average ANE6-10 for games 6 through 10 has been 0.240 ppp, and the Cats have posted single game ANE values above the championship threshold of 0.3 ppp twice in the last four games. This rising trend for the ANE admittedly is above the trend curve suggested by the ANE5 value this season.
At the end of November, as the Big Blue Nation anticipated the December schedule, I pointed out that the level of competition in December would put this team to the test, and with the OT loss to Seton Hall at MSG, the Cats have already stumbled once. It was my view after Thanksgiving that the Cats would need to traverse its December schedule with no more than one loss to indicate the type of improvement that would be consistent with preseason expectations for this team. Therefore, this encounter with North Carolina and next week’s trip to Louisville take on much greater importance.
Last Saturday, the Cats responded to the end of the fall semester and the onset of Camp Cal with a strong 27 point win over #165 Utah, 88-61. However, as impressive as this win was, the Cats rode an outstanding offensive performance to the final margin while allowing Utah to win the battle of the boards. On the defensive end, but for the 18 Utah turnovers, Utah would have finished much closer to the Cats at the final buzzer.
First things first, and that is this encounter with the Tar Heels in Chicago.
#10 North Carolina brings its 8-2 record into this game with an ANE of 0.283 ppp at a pace of 79 possessions per game against a schedule that currently ranks #51 (0.053 ppp). The Tarheels’ losses have been to #41 Texas by 3 points on a neutral court and at #6 Michigan by 17 points. North Carolina’s most impressive win this season has been over #7 Gonzaga by 13 last Saturday in Chapel Hill.
#35 Kentucky also brings its 8-2 record into this game with an ANE of 0.171 ppp at a pace of 71.4 possessions per game against a schedule that currently ranks #304 (-0.043 ppp). The ANE analysis provides North Carolina with an 8 point advantage on this neutral court, 85-77 in a game played at a pace of 80 possessions. Pomeroy projects a 4 point North Carolina win, 85-81, at a pace of about 75 possessions.
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