By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
In the last game of the NCAA Sweet 16 Friday night, the Cats had one of their strongest offensive halves of the season in the first half against one of the best defensive teams in the country on their way to an 11 point halftime lead. However, Houston’s defense was much more effective in the second half, and the Cats required some heroic plays in the last minute to overcome a late 3 point Houston lead and secure a 4 point victory.
It is not possible to say enough about the overall game performances turned in by several of these Cats, including Reid Travis, Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, and P J Washington. Yes, P J Washington suited up, and when he entered the game at the first media time out the Cats trailed Houston by a point, 7-6. P J Washington made his presence known almost immediately, and the entire tenor of the game seemed to changed instantly. While his performance through the game was soothing to the eyes of the Big Blue Nation who had been grieving his loss for over 10 days, his end of game heroics sealed the deal for me on his worthiness in the greatest program in the land.
Now, Calipari’s Cats advance to the Elite 8 for the 7th time in his 10 year tenure as the leader of this program where they will face a familiar opponent, the Auburn Tigers coached by Bruce Pearl. The Calipari-Pearl rivalry predates Coach Calipari’s time at UK and Pearl’s time at Auburn, and I doubt that either has the other on their personal Christmas Card lists. This season, these teams have played twice already with the Cats besting the Tigers by 2 points at Auburn and the Cats destroying the Tigers by 27 points at Rupp Arena on February 23.
Since that February encounter at Rupp Arena, Auburn has not lost, stringing together 11 consecutive wins in a most impressive manner, including last night’s easy handling of the #1 seed North Carolina by 17 points. Furthermore, since the Cats destroyed Auburn on February 23, the Cats have won 7 but lost twice to Tennessee, a team that Pearl’s Tigers have defeated twice during its current 11 game win streak.
As we all know, the Cats have been struggling to overcome the loss of key players due to injury since Februay 19, when Reid Travis sprained a knee, and then as soon as Reid Travis was able to return, P J Washington sprained a foot, taking him out of action for the first 2 games of the NCAA Tournament. Friday night, the Cats were as close to full strength as they have been since early February, and in a strange twist of fate, last night Auburn lost one of its best players to what appeared to be a serious knee injury when Chua Okeke went down under his own basket with about 8 minutes left in their game.
Auburn brings a 29-9 record into this game. Auburn has earned its 29-9 record against a schedule with a SOS value of 0.1132 ppp (#19). Furthermore, Auburn’s ANE for the season stands at an impressive 0.258 ppp, and their ANE over the last 5 games is 0.412 ppp.
The Cats’ schedule has a SOS value of 0.1087 ppp (#21). The Cats’ ANE for the season stands at 0.284 ppp, their season ANE since game 7 has been 0.325 ppp, and their ANE over the last 5 games is 0.345 ppp.
Even though the Cats have notched two victories over Auburn this season, Auburn is a dangerous opponent. As I have noted recently with respect to players that will be missing from the Kentucky lineup due to injury, this analysis has no capacity to account for the impact that missing players may have. That is also true with respect to Okeke’s status for Sunday’s game. With that in mind, the ANE analysis based on Kentucky’s ANE since game 7 and Auburn’s ANE indicates a Kentucky margin of 4 points, 75-71, in a game played at a pace of 68 possessions. As a matter of record, the traditional ANE analysis indicates a 1 1/2 point Kentucky advantage and a “last 5” analysis indicates an Auburn advantage of 4 ½ points. Pomeroy sees this as a 2 point advantage for Kentucky, 73-71, and Vegas gives Kentucky the edge by 3 points.
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: