Drexel 2010. Charlotte AND Western Carolina in 2009. WKU in 2008. Dayton in 2007. UMass in 2006. December out of conference upset losses to unranked teams are basically an annual tradition. Pitino's teams always gets better as the season goes on, and each of those teams ended up much better than they looked in those games. But those losses sucked then and we all still remember them.
Last year's team managed to avoid such a loss, and we didn't know it at the time, but those avoided losses were much bigger deals than we thought. The close win against Ohio looked much better after the Bobcats made a run in the NCAA tournament and almost knocked off UNC. Vandy ended up winning the SEC Tournament, making them the best team in the SEC last year by any objective measure. We have already dodged a couple bullets so far this year, beating Northern Iowa and Illinois State in games that were much closer than we wanted but that by the time the year is over should look different than they look today.
So according to the schedule makers, we've only got to avoid one more out-of-conference, unranked upset to make it two Decembers in a row! Let's see who we've got. It says here they lost to Baylor at home. Baylor, of course, lost to College of Charleston, who we beat by like 156 points. Also says here they start a Sophomore transfer from NC State, a couple of freshman and a senior transfer from the Horizon League. And in their 8-man rotation they have 1 guy who played real minutes at all last year and a walk-on that has primarily been used in garbage time his whole career. This game is on national TV? Seriously?
Okay, okay, enough trolling. I just don't know how else to approach this game. I don't want to say there is Rivalry Fatigue, but it feels like we are just going through the motions this week. Maybe it is the Sugar Bowl next week. Might be the fact that downtown is a ghost town, so there's not that pre-game energy. Could be that this is the third time these two teams have met in the last 12 months, and 4th if you include the football game and the months long buildup to that. The most likely explanation: even UK fans are outwardly projecting defeat. If you are like me, AND I KNOW YOU ARE, you have UK fans in your immediate family or at least in family you see for Christmas. I had 3 full days of multiple family gatherings per day at which UK fans were present, and at each it was the same refrain: you guys are going to beat us by 20, and you better beat us because this is your last chance, and if you can't beat us this year, then you never, ever, ever will. Of course, there was always the follow up: Harrow is playing really well, Nerlens is underrated defensively (which seems impossible but there you have it) and isn't Gorgui playing going to mess up the chemistry?
Because under the surface, UK fans don't really think they are going to lose this game. When pressed, here's what I learned about UK's path to victory according to a random sample of family, in-laws and above-average-knowledge employees who cheer for big blue.
1. Foul Trouble For Siva and/or Russ Smith
UK Fan Argument: Thanks to yesterday's ref analysis, I am now terrified of Siva and/or Russ being so amped up to start the game and the pro-UK ref being worked by Calipari so much that they both pick up cheap fouls on the press or at the top of the half court within the first few minutes. Russ's transformation from sideshow to indispensable part of the offense (which really happened last December only it didn't get noticed) will be Chron'd in these parts in the future and have been discussed a bunch, but if he goes to the bench at the 15 minute mark and doesn't play the rest of the half, where do the points come from? Can Ware and Hancock pick up the defensive slack and keep UK's defense honest?
Probably more terrifying is, what if Siva picks up 2 quick #Sivafouls? UK fans were quick to point out we have no true backup point guard, and Siva fouls constantly and gets away with it, so if the refs just call it fair Siva should get 2 fouls right away and then UK can keep our score low.
Somewhat Objective Analysis: Plausible and terrifying, this is UK's most likely path to victory. Without both Siva AND Russ we need one of Ware, Hancock, Blackshear or Tim Henderson to create shots for other guys, and we need them to apply the same sort of ball pressure (without also fouling) that wears down Harrow and Goodwin and gets us easy buckets.
Kicker: I'm told that Jared Polson is UK's best chance to beat the press because he is a much better ball handler and decision maker than Harrow and Goodwin. So even if Siva and Russ play, the press isn't that big of a worry.
2. UK Goes Off From 3, UofL Shoots Bad From 3
UK Fan Argument: The great equalizer, UK will have 3-4 guys on the court at any one time who can make 3s from anywhere: Mays, Wiltjer, Goodwin and even Poythress all are shooting above 30% from 3. Jon Hood rarely plays but has made 4 of the 6 3's he has taken this season. If a couple of those guys get hot and start making 3s, their defense and our anemic offense can keep them in the game. Coupled with a likely free throw advantage because everyone knows Pitino's teams foul everyone all the time, UK will score plenty of points. And everyone knows UofL can't shoot from outside this season.
Somewhat Objective Analysis: I think this is obviously up there but not as likely as Siva/Russ sitting and our offense stalling. Our 3 point defense hasn't been great this year from an anecdotal perspective, but UK's 3 point offense has been bad from a statistical perspective and our 3-point percentage defense is ranked 24th according to sources. And of course our overall defensive statistics are off the charts (2nd in overall defensive efficiency according to those same sources and 1st according to kenpom).
Kicker: Also, while we are dealing with a small sample and the narrative that this team can't shoot is pretty firmly rooted, we have been shooting a ton better the last few games and it feels like everyone is hot - or at least no one is cold right now. UK fans tell me their perimeter defense is bad and we will get open shots. So it is really simple: if we make open 3s, we will win. If we miss them, it will be a much tougher battle.
3. Nerlens Noel Is Game-Changer On Defensive End
UK Fan Argument: Not only is Noel a great shot blocker but he leads the team in steals with 2.7 per game. For comparison, Russ Smith averages 2.8 per game. So when you go into the paint, if you shoot, Noel is likely to block it but if you try to pass it, he's quick enough and has long enough arms that he will steal it. This of course perfectly counters one of our main sources of points - Russ and Siva driving to the basket and scoring or, more in years past than this year, dishing to someone for a dunk. The Gorgui v. Noel inside match-up is going to be huge, but how Noel handles Siva and Russ will really determine the outcome, and UK fans think he is an underrated (again, astounding) defensive player.
Somewhat Objective Analysis: This is another plausible path, although the last few games our scoring has not really come from Siva and Russ driving in the half court. Chane has developed a mid-range jumper and Wayne is scoring from 3 and getting pull-up jumpers just outside the paint. If Noel stays by the basket, both of them should be able to get this shot all day. If Noel is challenging these shots successfully AND able to protect the rim, he will have done everything he can to keep UK in the game.
Kicker: Nerlens Noel was advertised as better than Davis on defense and is still projected as the top pick in the NBA draft, but is underrated. I cannot get over this.
4. Poythress and Goodwin Dominate
UK Fan Argument: The real reason Cal has beaten Rick the last 3 seasons and 4 games in a row is no secret: his teams have been much more talented than Rick's. This year is no different, according to UK fans. Noel is better than Gorgui, Poythress is more talented and bigger than Chane, so Chane won't be able to score on him or stop him. Goodwin will be the most overall talented guy on the floor and is too big for Russ and Siva to slow down on defense, and way too fast and athletic for Hancock. Blackshear is overrated and too slow to guard Goodwin. Poythress has looked uninterested a lot, but when he turns it on he is unstoppable, and a game like this is just the kind to get him interested enough to dominate. Against Duke he shot 9-12 from the floor and scored 20 points. That led to a 4 game stretch of scoring 20+ points, and they only lost to ND because Poythress only got 1 shot. And in that game, Goodwin had his worst game as a Wildcat, going 1 of 7 from 3. No way both Poythress and Goodwin have games that bad again, and UofL has no one who can match-up with them. If Poythress gets shots, he makes them (see) and he will get shots against UofL.
Somewhat Objective Analysis: I'm less worried about these two guys than I should be. Poythress and Chane will be a great, great matchup, and I think if we can shut Poythress down then UK needs to shoot 40% from 3 while we shoot 15% from outside the arc for UK to win. Goodwin is really, really good (both guys are projected lottery picks) and other than the ND game hasn't been held to single digits in points yet this season. He is good for at least one highlight dunk per game, sometimes more, and will try to break the press himself and may be able to do it. He turns the ball over too much for a primary ballhandler, but makes his free throws. He doesn't shoot a ton of 3s and will look to get Russ, Siva and Gorgui in foul trouble by beating them off the dribble. He worries me more than Poythress, but if we can keep him from getting in transition and drawing fouls in the half-court and force him to take jump shots, then that's our best chance to limit his impact on the game. Best case for us is he scores 16 points on 6-20 shooting. Worst case is he scores 20 points on us on 6-8 shooting and lots of free throws on Russ and Siva reach ins.
Kicker: The player who inspired the CJ think-piece from yesterday was a composite character of Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin and the "fan" was every UK fan ever.
5. UofL Has All The Pressure, UofL Sucks, UK Rules
UK Fan Argument: UofL HAS TO WIN THIS GAME or literally the program will shut down. We are favored by double digits, we are at home, we have Rick's best team at UofL (and honestly if you were told that in 11 seasons Rick would only have 2 Final Fours, 2 Elite Eights and no championships, you would have urged Jurich not to hire him in 2001 right?) and UK is struggling. You may win this game, but you don't want to face UK in the tournament because we just need time for it all to come together.
I actually had someone say this to me this: "How would you feel if you beat UK, but then the brackets came out and UofL was #1 seed and UK was a #3 seed and UK won their bracket and you had to face them in the Final Four?" Uh, I dunno, good I guess? What am I supposed to say here?
Somewhat Objective Response: Maybe it is all of those things discussed above: rivalry fatigue, Sugar Bowl, lack of buzz downtown. But I'm ready for this game to be over. We really should win this game, and I really don't want to think about the reaction of either fan base if we lose.
Final Prediction: I hate this, but I really think we win going away tomorrow. It will be close for most of the first half, and the longer UK keeps it close or leads, the worse for us obviously. But I think we are more talented top to bottom (UK's bench is atrocious and they really only play 7.5 guys) and are playing better as a team than they are. Gorgui being back is a net positive, and hopefully it doesn't take long for the offense to reorient itself now that he's back. Chane has really stepped up the last few games and he seems to play better in big games.
The thre biggest factors are fouls (especially on Russ and Siva in that order, or maybe reverse order I keep changing my mind), turnovers and 3 point FG% for both teams. If we turn them over and they don't get hot from 3, we should win no matter how bad we shoot from 3. If Russ and Siva sit most of the first half, UK gets a lead and Noel shuts down our non-3 point offense, it could be a long game.
In the Final Four last year we had to play our A+ game to win, and we played B or worse basketball most of the game and still managed to tie it late in the 2nd half. Tomorrow UK has to play their A game and we have to play B- or worse, I think. That is entirely plausible, of course. And in a rivalry game with this much intensity in the crowd, if UK gets a lead and the crowd panics, who knows what happens.
Whatever. Let's just go win this game tomorrow and then go win the Sugar Bowl.