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January 27, 2010
This Time it Cost Them
UK Falls

by John Gasaway

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Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader has offered the following lede for his recap of Kentucky's 68-62 loss to South Carolina:

When he saluted top-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday afternoon for their relief work for earthquake victims in Haiti, President Barack Obama made small talk by asking whom the Cats played next.

Told it was South Carolina, the president said, "You should be all right."

I realize our current president is far and away the most hoops-savvy chief executive our nation has ever had, but, I'm sorry, Mr. President. Even you are no Ken Pomeroy:

This year's edition of Kentucky has a history of not putting away weaker opponents. Normally that's a sign of bad things to come, and in this case it's the direct cause of UK's lower-than-expected [Pomeroy] rating. In recent contests against both Georgia and Auburn, the game was tied with eight minutes to go. A week ago the Cats were tied with Florida with five minutes left. Essentially, the Wildcats have been willing to throw away the first 75 to 85 percent of the game. Playing what amounts to a five- to eight-minute game against a less-talented opponent is normally a dangerous thing when done regularly--it gives the more-talented team less time to prove its superiority.

These words appeared in this space yesterday mere hours before UK-South Carolina tipped off in Columbia. And if you watched the last six minutes of this game you, like me, are convinced that Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn read every word of Ken's piece. In fact if you still have this game on your DVR, cue up the South Carolina possession that starts with three minutes left and Kentucky trailing by two.

Horn has his team run a 1-4 set for Devan Downey, and indeed no Gamecock other than Downey so much as touches the ball for the entire possession. With about 15 seconds left on the shot clock the fifth-year senior ran off a ball screen on the wing, drove into the paint, and launched a high-arching bank shot that went in. No major-conference team in the country last year sped up its pace as dramatically as did South Carolina, but late in the game last night Horn had his team playing a shot-clock-compliant version of the four corners. It worked.

Downey's late-game heroics notwithstanding (in the last 4:13 he was 3-of-4 from the floor; before that he was 6-of-25), Kentucky lost last night because they scored a measly 62 points in a 68-possession game. The Cats suffered their worst shooting night of the young SEC season against a defense known more for feeding off turnovers than they are for forcing missed shots.

When a highly-ranked team like Kentucky loses to an unranked team like South Carolina, the word "stun" invariably crops up. As in: Gamecocks stun Cats, etc. Maybe we should instead be stunned that headline writers are so regularly stunned. In calendar 2010 teams playing on an opponent's home floor while ranked in the top five of the coaches' poll are just 13-6 in those road games, meaning there's nearly a one-in-three chance of being "stunned" by any given outcome. (And if top-five teams would just stop picking up easy road wins at Rutgers, we'd be stunned in an even higher proportion of instances.)

No, what stuns me is that Patrick Patterson took just four shots last night. Yes, DeMarcus Cousins is an absolute monster (he posted a 27-12 double-double against the Gamecocks) who will quite rightly go at the very top of the NBA draft this summer. What's more Cousins is blooming before our eyes; it seems like he adds to his repertoire of post moves almost game-to-game now, and that's pretty exciting to watch. I get that, really.

But there have been other teams with two NBA-level players in the same frontcourt, and those teams managed to balance the load on offense in a way that worked and made sense. I don't think Kentucky has reached that point, not when a player of Patterson's caliber (who, after all, is projected as a lottery pick in his own right) is more or less taking as few shots in this offense as, say, Arinze Onuaku takes for Syracuse. And, after 20 games, the likelihood is of course that what we see is simply the way it's going to be. John Calipari is clearly OK with it, and maybe Patterson needs to "demand" the ball more, etc. All I know is I've never seen a soon-to-be lottery pick who makes 65 percent of his twos be an afterthought on offense.

In his piece yesterday Ken held out the hope for Kentucky fans that their team might be statistical impostors. UK on paper is a good-but-not-great team that lets opponents like Georgia and Auburn hang with them, but maybe the almost absurdly talented Cats simply have to do things like that to keep the sport interesting for them personally. To illustrate this possibility, Ken called upon the example of Gonzaga in 2006, a team that found it could win without playing defense--that is, until they found out otherwise.

I'll go Ken one better. To me the team that was the very epitome of "Never mind the ugly stats, just look at these guys" was Florida in 2007. Here's what I said about that team in last year's book:

Stats are only trustworthy to the degree that player motivation is.

This particular chicken even came home to roost in college hoops for one year in the form of defending champion Florida in 2007. The Gators that year were actually outscored over the course of their last five conference games, a fact that didn't prevent them from winning their second national championship with somewhat disconcerting insouciance--never blowing any quality opponent out, really, but never lapsing into danger, either.

As an example for the young people, we probably don't want to celebrate a team that so clearly took a "We'll turn it on when the time comes, thanks" approach. But that's exactly what Florida did that year and, say this for them, it worked.

Who knows, it could work for Kentucky this year too. I don't say it won't. But it does mean we'll continue to see a disconnect between what we humans think of this team and what the numbers say. Get used to it.

John is also chock full of 20-20 hindsight on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Wild Blowout (01/27)
Next Article >>
Banged Up (01/28)

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