By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
When Joe B. Hall walked the sidelines, he called it the January slump. However, it is actually the reality of the SEC. When any UK team ventures into places like Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Baton Rouge, Oxford, and every other SEC member’s arena, they do so with a huge target on their front and back. Nearly every SEC basketball program measures its entire season by a win over Kentucky.
This reality reared its ugly head once again when the Cats ventured into Tuscaloosa on Saturday to face a SEC opponent on the road for the first time this season.
In Coach Hall’s era, this reality seemed to affect his team each year even though most of his rosters included experienced upperclassmen who had fought in the SEC wars in previous seasons. In the Calipari Era, this reality is one that every team must learn what it means to play in the opponents’ Super Bowl every game. The learning process is more complicated because the vast majority of players on the Calipari roster are going into an SEC war for the first time ever. Even this year, with a graduate transfer, Kentucky playing against the SEC on the road is different from Stanford playing on the road in the PAC12. It just is.
Saturday, this reality smacked this team right between the eyes. I don’t think the players ever really understood that even Alabama could hand them a loss, thus the true nature of the culture shock of the SEC. With Kentucky on your chest, it is real and it is severe.
I am confident that Coach Calipari tried to warn his SEC neophytes about the “super bowl” mentality that each SEC opponent will bring to these games. I am equally confident that the players either did not understand or believe the truth of the warning. Experience shows us that each Kentucky team must learn the lessons based on its own experience. Some UK teams have been a quick study, and have only need one embarrassing loss like this one to learn this lesson. Other UK teams have needed several road losses in the SEC before they finally accept this reality and confront it as a champion does.
Will this team be a fast learner, or will it be SEC Challenged into late February?
Peeking ahead at the next 6 games, it is clear that UK may not deliver its real answer to this question until January 19 when the Cats must travel to Auburn. The next three games include two at Rupp against Texas A&M on Tuesday and Vanderbilt on Saturday. Then the Cats venture back on the road to face hapless Georgia, a 46-point victim to Tennessee this past Saturday. These 3 games will give this team about 11 days to get their act together before taking a real road trip to face #7 Auburn. I suppose that if the Cats fail to win all three of these games, then the issues with this team actually go way beyond a January slump due to the SEC culture shock noted above. This is why I expect this team to travel to Auburn in a couple of weeks with a 13-3, 3-1 record.
One game at a time is the mantra, and next up will be Texas A&M at Rupp Arena tonight.
Texas A&M enters this game with a 6-6 record. Texas A&M started their season on the skids, losing 4 of their first 5 games. Their only win came at the expense of #346 Savannah State, with losses to #91 UC Irvine, #3 Gonzaga, #59 Minnesota, and #73 Washington. The Aggies then won their next 5 games, but their opponents during this winning streak are ranked #343, #258, #195, #152, and #75 Oregon State, which gives the Aggies their most impressive win of the season. Texas A&M enter Rupp on Tuesday on a 2 game losing streak, falling to #180 Texas Southern by 15 and falling at home to #56 Arkansas by 2 in their SEC opener. The Aggies’ schedule to date has been relatively weak, with a SOS value of -0.001 ppp (#171). Overall, #120 Texas A&M’s ANE stands at 0.53 ppp, but over their last 5 games, the Aggies has improved to 0.101 ppp.
The Cats’ schedule has been stronger, at 0.024 ppp (#97). The Cats’ ANE for the season stands at 0.210 ppp and their ANE over the last 5 games is 0.330 ppp.
The ANE (Last 5 game basis) analysis indicates a UK margin of 24 points, 87-63, in a game played at a pace of 74 possessions. As a matter of record, the traditional ANE analysis indicates a 19-point Kentucky advantage (84-65). Pomeroy has this game as 13 points in Kentucky’s favor, 79-66, at a pace of 69 possessions.
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