With conference play approaching, a look at potential pitfalls for Kentucky
To commemorate the perfection of Kentucky’s non-conference schedule, which has been like watching a cement truck going down a mountain, how about a little exercise in conjecture?
Here is the Wildcats’ Southeastern Conference schedule. Now, let’s try to find a date when Kentucky might lose.
Not going to be easy, is it? There are a lot of things we have to look at.
Never mind some of the defensive statistics that would make a computer gag. The 29.7 shooting percentage allowed. The 11 of 13 opponents held under 53 points. UCLA scoring seven points in a half, or Louisville getting one assist in a game or Kansas having as many shots get blocked (11) as those that went in. Or the stark words from Rick Pitino: “They’re one of the great defensive teams I’ve seen in my 40 years.”
|Blocks per game||8.2||1|
|FG percentage defense||29.7||1|
Ignore, please, the Kentucky domination shouted loudly by SEC history. How the Wildcats have won 45 league championships, while LSU is next with 10. How Kentucky is 30 for its past 31 against Auburn, and 51-2 at home against Ole Miss, and 118-25 all-time against Georgia.
Try to forget the scary fact that the Wildcats might even get better. How Aaron Harrison probably won’t shoot 37 percent forever, and Andrew Harrison probably won’t make six turnovers in a game again like he did at Louisville, and John Calipari intends to keep driving his stable of All-American horses with unyielding purpose. “The moon and the stars have connected. Now let’s see what we can do with this,” he said following the Louisville victory, not long after announcing that in honor of the big victory, he was giving his lads Sunday off ... until 6 p.m.
“We have nine days to get our team right,” he said, begging the question of just how much can be wrong when you’re 13-0 by an average score of 75.3-47.8. But he’ll find something.
Bottom line, put aside the odds. Let’s look for a date of vulnerability using the best reasons available, even if they aren’t much.
Jan. 10, at Texas A&M: It’ll be the first league road game for Kentucky’s freshmen, and the 7-3 Aggies are 5-0 at home this season. Kentucky has played in College Station only once, losing in overtime there two years ago. Recent games against Arizona State, Baylor and Kansas State should have helped harden the Aggies. They’re third in the SEC in 3-point shooting, and conventional wisdom holds that if the Wildcats are to fall, someone will have to torch them from the outside, since getting into the paint against them is like trying to break out of prison.
Jan 17, at Alabama: Tuscaloosa has been a troublesome stop for Kentucky, and not just in football. The Wildcats have lost three of their last four trips. Sunday’s win against UCLA makes the Tide 8-0 at home and raises their stature, while the one-point loss at Wichita State showed they could play against quality. Maybe Nick Saban can sit on the front row and glare at the Kentucky bench.
Jan. 24, at South Carolina: The 7-3 Gamecocks have won five in a row, so they seem to be moving up a level. Their field goal percentage defense is almost Kentucky-like at 33.8, which is fifth best in the nation. If the Wildcats have not cured their shooting ills by then, that could keep it close. This game might end 36-32. South Carolina is second in the SEC in offensive rebounds, an area which has been a frustration for Calipari. And the Gamecocks have the memory of beating Kentucky last year.
Feb. 7, at Florida: Nobody has been a bigger pest to Kentucky than Billy Donovan. The Gators beat the Wildcats three times last year and four of their last five meetings. Injuries and suspensions hurt at the start of the season, but Florida clearly is on the move with four consecutive double-digit victories, and might have it’s A game by then. The Gators shouldn’t be unnerved if they have trouble scoring against Kentucky. They have trouble scoring against a lot of people, but their 55.5 points allowed is 13th lowest in the nation.
Feb. 10, at LSU: This might be the most dangerous day of all for the Wildcats. For one, it comes only three days after their Florida trip, so they will have to get second wind in a hurry. For another, the Tigers are 9-2, have won six in a row and are 6-0 at home. For another, LSU owns the SEC’s best non-conference win of the season not belonging to Kentucky – a 74-73 victory at West Virginia. Many of the RPI rankings make either LSU or Arkansas the biggest Kentucky threat. The Tigers won over the Wildcats in Baton Rouge last year 87-82, and nearly beat them in Lexington.
Feb. 28, vs. Arkansas: The 9-2 Razorbacks average 83.5 points a game, are third in the nation in assists and lead the SEC in 3-point shooting. They might be the one league team with the firepower to give Kentucky’s defense some trying moments. But the Wildcats catch a huge scheduling break in not having to play this season in Fayetteville, where they have lost three in a row. Matter of fact, Kentucky has dropped four of its last five games against Arkansas, three of them in overtime.
March 3, at Georgia: It will be the last true road game of the season for Kentucky. The Bulldogs are 7-3 and capable. By then, Wildcat minds might be wandering ahead to the NCAA Tournament, but not if Calipari has anything to do with it.
March 11-15, SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn.: Curious things can happen when a team has to play three days in a row. The Wildcats might have to beat Florida a third time (not that easy), or Arkansas without benefit of a home crowd. Or there might be a wild card such as Vanderbilt, a 51-percent shooting team – seventh best in the country-- that would have the Nashville crowd on its side.
It could happen. “They are not machines,” Calipari has said of Wildcats, often. “They are not computers.”
No, they’re not. And that might be the best chance of all for the SEC. The numbers on paper don’t offer much hope.