By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
Save the trip to Texas Tech in about 4 weeks, the Cats traversed its non-conference schedule during November and December and finished that journey with a badly needed win over #8 Louisville in OT with three losses. Those twelve games included impressive wins over Michigan State (#1 pre-season) and Louisville (#1 earlier in the season). The loss in Las Vegas to #1 Ohio State would not be an embarrassment for any major college basketball program in 2019-20, but the losses to #95 Utah also in Las Vegas probably should not have occurred, and the less to #192 Evansville at Rupp is an indelible black mark on this team and program.
Now, the Cats must turn their full attention to the 18 game slate of conference games that begin on Saturday at Rupp against Missouri. The other 13 SEC teams have also completed their non-conference schedules, with the exception of the 10 teams scheduled to participate in the annual SEC-Big12 Challenge at the end of January.
As conference action is set to begin for all, Auburn has distinguished itself at the head of the pack with an ANE of 0.251 ppp. No other SEC team enters conference play with an ANE at or above 0.2 ppp. There are five teams with ANE values between 0.168 ppp and 0.197 ppp, Arkansas (0.197), Kentucky (0.185), LSU (0.185), Florida (0.176), and Missouri (0.168).
In my opinion, the SEC race is likely to focus on which 3 of these 5 teams will survive the SEC wars to secure the remaining three double bye positions for the SEC Tournament in March.
The bottom four at this stage include Texas A&M (-0.080), South Carolina (0.050), Vanderbilt (0.070), and Mississippi (0.087), leaving Mississippi State (0.143) and Tennessee (0.142) in position to challenge the upper tier teams, and Georgia (0.101) struggling to stay out of the bottom four.
Despite the stumble against Utah, this Kentucky team’s play has improved since hitting its bottom with the home loss to Evansville in early November. However, the ANE is trending horizontally (not upward or downward) over the last 8 games between a narrow range of about 0.16 to 0.19 ppp, and currently stands at 0.185 ppp.
Missouri starts the SEC with an 8-4 record. The Tigers’ most impressive wins have been at #24 Temple by 10 and over #42 Illinois by 7 on a neutral court in December. After winning 4 of their first five games, with the sole loss at #46 Xavier by 5 in OT, the Tigers struggled through a 3-game losing streak that included losses to #6 Butler by 11, #90 Oklahoma by 11, and at home to #336 Charleston Southern by 8. The Missouri ANE bottomed out following the Charleston Southern loss at 0.10 ppp. However, the Tigers’ current 4 game winning streak has lifted their ANE to a current 0.168 ppp.
These trends indicate this game is dangerous for the Cats. In summary, #43 Missouri brings a 8-4 record into the game. Missouri has played this season at an average tempo of 66.5 possessions per game at an ANE 0.168 ppp with a schedule strength of -0.012 ppp. The #32 Cats bring a 9-3 record into this game with an ANE of 0.185 ppp against a schedule strength of 0.006 ppp, having played at an average tempo of 69.1 possessions per game.
Based on this data for these teams, an ANE analysis indicates this game will have a tempo of 68 possessions with the Cats winning by 5 points, 68-63.