By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
The 2019 exhibition season’s wins over Georgetown and Kentucky State sent a warning about the toughness of this edition of Cal’s Cats on the boards and how this group struggles to put the ball in the basket in a highly efficient manner. In addition, these games have exposed a low basketball IQ with poor shot selection.
Now, the Cats open their regular season on one of basketball’s premier stages under some of basketball’s brightest lights against the consensus preseason No. 1 Michigan State in the Champions Classic in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. As Coach Calipari has said repeatedly since his arrival in Lexington, his players cannot hide their weaknesses when they go onto the floor under such bright lights and scrutiny.
The Calipari loyalists will argue that this UK team will be a contender for the championship when March arrives. Implicit in such pleadings is that Calipari teams are not legitimate contenders in November. Tell that to the 2012 group that brought home the hardware. Tell that to the 2015 bunch that rolled through a 38-0 start before derailing in the Final Four against a very strong Wisconsin group. Yes, some of Calipari’s teams have started slow only to grow into strong finishers, but more often, fast starts yield very strong seasons and slow starts end with an earlier than desired NCAA exit.
As compared to nearly every other Calipari team at UK, this team has stumbled out of the starting gate through its two exhibition games. Despite this clear slow start, Mike Pratt and Tom Leach, late in the second exhibition game, said that the team obviously knows who its opponent is, and come Tuesday night, when the opponent is arguably the strongest, toughest team in the land, this group will respond with a worthy effort.
Such a statement only has significance when this same team did not respond with worthy efforts in the two exhibitions. If that is the case, then there is a fundamental flaw in the psyche of this team that would allow such a nonchalant approach to an opponent that the players do not respect. If the assertions by Leach and Pratt is not correct, then the BBN will likely be greatly disappointed come midnight Tuesday.
Following the exhibition season, three UK players graded well in these outings. Nate Sestina, Immanuel Quickley, and Ashton Hagans all posted individual efficiencies above 0.4 ppp for those two games. No one else on the roster graded high enough for positive comment, and three players ended in red numbers, E. J. Montgomery, Kahlil Whitney, and Keion Brooks.
Prior to the exhibition games, Calipari identified the issue he wants to see this group of Cats demonstrate on the floor — toughness. It should be clear to any objective observer that this team did not demonstrate sufficient toughness.
So, for the second season in a row, the Cats open in the Champions Classic rather than using two early season games to round a young team into playing condition before confronting one of the other three participants in this annual war. Last year, Duke taught a young group of Cats that their effort was inadequate. Will this group of Cats be up to the challenge that will be Michigan State, or will the Spartans spank the Cats as Duke did a year ago?
We will all find out on Tuesday night.
Over the last two seasons, Michigan State has won 32 and 30 games with an ANE of 0.308 ppp and 0.254 ppp respectively. Kentucky has won 30 and 26 games with an ANE of 0.275 ppp and 0.204 ppp respectively. Kentucky and Michigan State have averaged about 67 possessions per game during those earlier seasons.
Based on these prior season tendencies, it seems reasonable to give a slight edge to Michigan State in this matchup in a game played at a tempo of about 67 possessions. This analysis projects a Michigan State win by 2 points, 74-72.