Friday, February 12, 2010

UK Basketball: Race to the Finish

If we haven’t already seen what the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team is made of, we certainly will find out in the next three weeks – the final three weeks of the regular season.

As of today, Kentucky is 23-1, with their only loss coming a few weeks ago to South Carolina. They ran through their nonconference schedule undefeated, beating several ranked teams in the process. However, those two ranked teams – UNC and UCONN – have since gone on to mediocrity in conference play, and neither team is currently ranked. In fact, both are now hanging on to the slimmest of hopes of even making the NCAA tournament. For that reason, one could argue that while Kentucky’s perfect record in nonconference play this year was a great achievement (of the other top-ranked teams, only Syracuse went undefeated in nonconference play), the fact that Kentucky didn’t beat any top-tier teams in nonconference play could be held against them in evaluating just what they are made of.

After conference play began, Kentucky won its first four games, putting them at 19-0 as the last undefeated team in the nation. Again, a great achievement (it was their best start in over 40 years), but of those four teams, only Florida presented any serious challenge – and even Florida is probably only average this year, having only one signature victory – a win early in the season against Michigan State. They’ve lost to every other ranked team they’ve played since then.

In any case, after achieving that 19-0 record and attaining the number one ranking, UK promptly lost – and lost bad – to South Carolina. It seems clear that the pressure of being number one, together with the pressure of an undefeated season, was too much for this young team to handle.

Despite that loss (and the subsequent drop to 4th in the rankings), Kentucky has gone on to win its last four games, all by double-digit margins. Two of those four games were against ranked teams, one of which was undefeated in the SEC (Vanderbilt). But both of those wins also came at home.

Now at 23-1 and ranked 2nd in the nation (3rd in the AP poll), Kentucky will finish its season with a string of tough games. The first is this Saturday at home against 12th ranked Tennessee. Tennessee, of course, is the team that gave #1 Kansas its only loss earlier this year. They follow this game up with road games at Mississippi State (17-7 and did crack the top 25 for one week a few weeks back), and Vanderbilt (18-5 and currently ranked 22nd in the AP poll and 24th in the ESPN poll).

After that, they play South Carolina again – the team that gave them their only loss so far this season – then they play two more road games, at Tennessee and at Georgia. They end the season at home against Florida.

Of these remaining seven games, only the Georgia game should be a simple win. Even that game, however, can’t be underestimated. Georgia is only 10-12 this year, but they have won some big upsets, most notably against Vanderbilt and Tennessee. And in their earlier game against Kentucky, UK only beat them by 8 points – and that was in Lexington. It is not out of the question for Georgia to pull another upset at home.

So if we haven’t already seen what Kentucky is really made of, we’re definitely going to find out in the next three weeks. If they go 7-0 and finish the regular season at 31-1, I doubt there will be very many people doubting that they are the nation’s best team. That, of course, will depend on what Kansas and Syracuse do in the next three weeks.

Syracuse (24-1 and ranked 3rd by ESPN, 2nd by the AP) has six games left, including a game at home against 4th-ranked Villanova and a road game against 8th-ranked Georgetown. They have not played Villanova this year, but they did beat Georgetown at home a few weeks ago. They also have games against Providence, St. John’s, and two against Louisville. None of those teams are ranked this year, however.

As for Kansas (23-1 and ranked 1st in both polls), they have seven games left, including games at Texas A&M (17-6) and Missouri (18-6). They also play a home game against Kansas State (19-4 and currently ranked 9th in both polls). Kansas has not yet played Texas A&M this year, but they have already played and beaten both Kansas State and Missouri.

Of these three teams – UK, Kansas, and Syracuse – I think Kentucky has the toughest schedule. Kansas and Syracuse will both play teams ranked higher than any team Kentucky will play, but they also have several games apiece against “easy win” teams. Kentucky won’t play anyone ranked higher than 12th, but they play that 12th ranked team (Tennessee) twice, and they don’t really have any “easy win” games, with the possible exception of Georgia. Additionally, four of Kentucky’s remaining games are road games, compared to only three apiece for Kansas and Syracuse.

Debate can no doubt be had on the topic of toughest remaining schedule, but in any case, the likelihood of three teams ending the regular season 31-1 is not very high. Probably none of them will do it. But in the case of Kentucky, these remaining three weeks will certainly gives us some insight into just how good (or how not good) they really are. I think these seven games will represent their toughest stretch of the entire season, and when you factor in pressure and late-season fatigue, it promises to be a real test for this young team.

My hope is that they will shine, but time will have to tell.


Scott said...

1-0 to begin this final 7 game stretch. UK beat Tennessee tonight by 11 points in a very high pressure game that was heavily hyped by ESPN and their "Gameday" people being there broadcasting from Lexington.

It was good to see Kentucky handle that big media pressure, after how they collapsed against South Carolina a few weeks ago after attaining the #1 ranking.

Scott said...

I don't necessarily plan on doing a 3-week play-by-play here, but I did want to comment that Syracuse got shocked by Louisville today, which certainly impacts the issues I talked about in this blog post.

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