By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
The Cats cleared a huge hurdle at the Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. Other than a 2 point lead in the opening minute of the game, Kentucky never trailed the Spartans after moving on top 5-4 after the first two scoring possessions of the game. These Cats played with the toughness that Coach Calipari has spent the preseason period insisting that this team must have.
No. 1 versus No. 2 collisions are rare in college basketball, and for a No. 1 versus No. 2 to occur for the first game of the season is so rare that this is only the second time in about 50 years. Michigan State was the preseason No. 1 team with a veteran team that finished last season in the Final Four. This Kentucky team controlled the pace of the game with strong defense, and played in the lead with confidence and effectiveness.
Prior to the season, Pomeroy projected UK as a favorite in 30 of the 31 regular season games, with this opening game encounter as the one game in which UK was not the favored team. As the Cats return to Lexington, having dethroned No. 1, the BBN’s expectation that the basketball world will confer the new No. 1 status to these Cats. Looking ahead, the Cats are in a very strong position to hang on to the top ranking for a long time.
Yes, the Cats will play their usual, highly competitive schedule again this season, but the next seven opponents are in the category often called cupcakes. Starting five weeks from Saturday, the Cat’s enter the heart of their non-conference schedule by facing in order Georgia Tech, Utah, Ohio St., and Louisville. Then the Cats enter what is shaping up to be a brutal SEC run on January 4.
The Cats have 5 weeks and 7 games to iron out any wrinkles it has in their game, allow the players to climb up their personal learning curves, and to meld into a team. The hard work occurs during practice sessions between these game, and the games provide coaches the opportunity to identify the wrinkles and address them in practice. The first opponent in this phase of the season will be EKU.
EKU also opened its season on Tuesday night when it beat #288 Chattanooga by 11 points, 79-68, in a game played at a 81 possession tempo. Following its win, EKU stands at #260 in Pomeroy’s ranking with an ANE of -0.149 points per possession (ppp). The Cats enter this game with an ANE of 0.290 ppp. In my opinion, this game should happen at a tempo of about 72 possessions with the Cats winning by 34 points, 90-56.