By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
On Tuesday night, the LSU Tigers brought the Kentucky win streak to an end at 10 games, but that was not the only cost of that loss. For the first time since the 7th game of the season, this Kentucky team’s progress, climbing the ranks of college basketball’s elite toward a serious run at #9 reversed course.
Furthermore, for the first time this SEC season, Kentucky’s ability to win the SEC regular season title, one of the standards against which all Kentucky basketball teams are measured, has been removed from the Cats’ own hands.
The Cats can still finish ahead of consensus #1 Tennessee by defeating them twice and winning all other games. However, that alone will not be sufficient to secure a the SEC title in 2019 because the home loss to LSU places LSU in the driver’s seat, and for the Cats to secure this SEC Championship, LSU must lose twice over the next 6 games.
A home loss to a contender is usually such a significant event that it alone eliminates a team from a championship race, especially when the loss occurs to a team that is only on the schedule that one time during the season. Therefore, from a practical perspective, the Cats are now playing in the SEC for the #2 seed, and the most direct route from Tuesday’s home loss to LSU to the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament is to defeat Tennessee twice, which would also drop the Vols to the #3 spot.
Given the gap that currently exists between the top 3 teams in the SEC and any other team with a punchers chance to secure the 4th double bye this season, it is unlikely that LSU, Tennessee or Kentucky will occupy the #4 spot when the SEC Tournament begins.
The schedule makers sure seem to anticipate these scenarios when they put together a schedule that has the Cats playing LSU and Tennessee on consecutive games past the midpoint of the SEC season. Saturday night, on one of the brightest and most prestigious stages that college basketball offers, it will be Tennessee and Kentucky. That big stage will be further illuminated by the college game day lights and presence.
No. 5 TENNESSEE brings an impressive 23-1, 11-0 record into Rupp Arena. Despite their #5 (ANE) ranking based on efficiency to date, Tennessee is the #1 college basketball team in both major wire service polls again this week. Tennessee’s solitary loss occurred on November 23 to #17 Kansas by 6 points, 87-81, in OT. Since that loss, Tennessee has won 19 consecutive basketball games.
Kansas is one of two non-conference opponents in common with Kentucky, and while Tennessee lost to the Jayhawks on a neutral court, the Cats defeated Kansas by 8 points at Rupp. The second common non-conference opponent has been #14 Louisville. Tennessee defeated Louisville on a neutral court in November by 11 points while the Cats defeated Louisville at the YUM center by 13 points.
In SEC play, the Volunteers have been perfect while the Cats have dropped two games, at #54 Alabama by 2 points, and to #19 LSU by 2 at Rupp. Tennessee defeated Alabama by 3 points in Knoxville and has not played LSU yet, and will only do so once this season.
As you may recall, prior to the LSU game this week, I pointed out that LSU was no stranger to 1 or 2 possession ball games, having played in 9 (10 now), winning 6 (7 now) and dropping 3 while the Cats had been in only 4 such games this season (5 now), sinning 2 and losing 2 (3 now). Tennessee enters this game having played in 4 games decided by 2 possessions or less, winning 3 and losing 1. The Vols last played a close game in January in Nashville when it needed overtime to beat winless Vanderbilt by 5 and could only manage a 3-point win in their previous game against Alabama. Since the Vanderbilt OT win, the Vols have won six consecutive games by at least 12 points.
With this backdrop setting the stage, Tennessee will confront the Cats at Rupp, trying to hand the Cats a rare back to back home loss.
The Volunteers schedule has a SOS value of 0.0531 ppp (#38). The TENNESSEE ANE for the season stands at 0.309 ppp and their ANE over the last 5 games is 0.303 ppp.
The Cats’ schedule has a SOS value of 0.0803 ppp (#30). The Cats’ ANE for the season stands at 0.287 ppp, their season ANE since game 7 has been 0.351 ppp, and their ANE over the last 5 games is 0.392 ppp.
The ANE analysis based on Kentucky’s ANE since game 7 indicates a Kentucky margin of 7 points, 77-70, in a game played at a pace of 70 possessions. As a matter of record, the traditional ANE analysis indicates a 2 ½ point Kentucky advantage and a “last 5” analysis indicates a UK advantage of 10 ½ points. Pomeroy has this game as a 2 point Kentucky win, 74-72, at a pace of 66 possessions, and Vegas has opened with the Cats a 3 point favorite.
Use the following link to see how other UK fans handicap this game at 247Sports, The Cats Pause message board:
You can participate in the score prediction contest at 247Sports at the following link: