By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
On Tuesday night, the Cats took care of business at Rupp Arena and handed the Mississippi State Bulldogs an 8-point loss. However, the path ahead does not get easier for the Cats as they head to Knoxville. Coach Calipari’s team have lost 6 of the last 10 meetings between the Vols and Cats since Rick Barnes became the head coach at Tennessee. Furthermore, the Cats have lost each of the four times the Cats have played in Knoxville with Barnes working the sidelines.
• In 2016, the 16-5 Cats lost by 7 to a UT team that finished the season 15-19
• In 2017, the 17-2 Cats lost by 2 to a UT team that finished the season 16-16
• In 2018, the 12-3 Cats lost by 11 to a UT team that finished the season 26-9
• In 2019, the 24-5 Cats lost by 19 to a UT team that finished the season 31-6
During these last four seasons, the Cats have lost to Tennessee teams that have not been strong, and the Cats have sustained double digit losses in Knoxville on their last two visits. Now the Cats take a 17-5, 7-2 record into Knoxville to face a UT team that currently has a 13-9 record and is 5-4 after the first half of the SEC schedule. The task before this crop of Cats to get out of Knoxville in 2020 with rare win, and even though this Tennessee team has not measured up to the last two, the Cats will face a difficult challenge to secure a win in Knoxville even against this struggling bunch of Volunteers
On Wednesday night, the SEC front runner, LSU, put its 8-0 SEC record on the line in Tennessee at 0-8 Vanderbilt, and LSU left the State of Tennessee 8-1. Prior to this upset, Kentucky’s SEC Championship plans not only depended upon defeating LSU in Baton Rouge later this month, but on Auburn or someone else also beating the Bayou Bengals to deliver a second loss to LSU. In addition, that scenario required the Cats to not stumble in other games over the balance of this season Kentucky’s fate was not entirely in its own control. However, with LSU’s loss to Vanderbilt, Kentucky’s path to another SEC Championship is now completely within their sole control. But, as noted above, the Cats need to beat Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday to retain that self determination.
Clearly, Tennessee has not had the type of season in 2019-20 that many people expected based on the strength of the Tennessee team each of the last two seasons. Their 13-9, 5-4 record must be a disappointment for them that must be compounded by the Vols’ 3 losses in their last 4 games. Their 5-point loss to #145 Texas A&M must be especially troubling, and their 13 point loss at #30 Mississippi State, the team the Cats defeated at Rupp on Tuesday should alarm the Vols as they prepare to host the Cats.
Tennessee’s current ANE is an 0.148 ppp against a schedule strength of 0.075 ppp and a tempo of 66.8 possessions per game. The Tennessee home court advantage, based on several years’ of home-away SEC games is 0.053 ppp. The Cats bring an ANE of 0.199 ppp into this game having played a schedule strength of 0.067 ppp at a tempo of 69.7 possessions per game. The game ANE difference, with the home court advantage added is -0.002 ppp.
Based on this data for these teams, an ANE analysis indicates this game will have a tempo of 68 possessions. Given the home court advantage, the game computes as a “pick ‘em” matchup at this venue producing a rare 50% probability for each team. There cannot be a tie, so in this case, since the objective standard is inconclusive, I must rely upon my subjective leanings.
Subjective factors tip the scales in favor of the Cats. As the SEC moves into the final half of the schedule, Kentucky still controls its own destiny at 7-2 with game a game remaining at LSU, against Auburn at Rupp, and home and home against Florida, the three teams still in the hunt for the SEC Championship and one of the four double byes for the SEC Tournament. However, a loss at Tennessee on Saturday changes the Cats’ position relative to the championship race and the four double byes. For these reasons, this is a critical road game for the Cats.
Tennessee, on the other hand, is probably not a viable contender for the championship or a double bye because of their 4 losses to date and road trips to Auburn, Arkansas, and Kentucky remaining on their schedule.
For these reasons, I believe the Cats will prevail in Knoxville in a close game. Cats by 1, 68-67.