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Kentucky Wildcats: 2014-15 Season In Review Part 3 - The SEC First Half

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Kentucky forged into the 2015 conference season as a seeming juggernaut. That perception would be challenged immediately.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

After finally returning from my near-complete hiatus after turning over A Sea of Blue to the more-than-capable hands of Jason, I figure it’s about time to finish the long-delayed season postmortem. I had originally envisioned it to be five posts long, but after working on this one, I think I’m going to have to make it more like seven. The season was just too long and eventful. The conference season will be separated into two separate posts rather than one, as will the post-season.

As usual, last year’s Southeastern Conference was not among the strongest of the Big Six conferences. Ken Pomeroy’s final numbers ($) had the SEC once again outside the top three at #5 nationally, but in the bottom third of the Big Six. The SEC has not placed above #4 nationally since 2007, and the conference weakness has been a factor in Kentucky’s fortunes, although it’s hard to say how significant a factor it was.

With the advent of the new year, the Kentucky Wildcats came out of Camp Cal and into the new season with a sense of optimism which was shared by most fans. Many observers thought Kentucky might drop a game or two in the non-conference season, which was as tough a slate of games as any in America. But when Kentucky came into January unscathed, many thought an undefeated run through the SEC was a beter than 50% proposition. That thinking would be severely tested early on.

January

Ole Miss

When Ole Miss came to Rupp Arena on January 6th, many fans here and around the Big Blue Nation thought that this would be a straightforward conference game — Ole Miss would hang around at least until halftime, and then the Wildcats would handle them much as they had handled Texas, North Carolina, and Louisville. That judgment was mistaken, but it wasn’t obvious early.

Kentucky ran out to an 18-5 lead in the first 4 minutes, and it looked at that point like this might be another Kansas or UCLA-style blowout. It wouldn’t last. Ole Miss would take the lead with 7:38 left in the first half, erasing the UK 13-point advantage in only a little more time than it took for the Wildcats to get it. After that, as the song says, it was "on like Donkey Kong." The Rebels led at halftime 38-36.

In the second half, as had been their wont all season, the Wildcats responded with a furious rally, taking back the lead on a Devin Booker 3-pointer and pushing it out to as much as six points before the under-16 timeout. Kentucky would retain the lead until Stefan Moody tied it at 55 with 10:28 left. The back-and forth would continue in a wild up-and-down game that featured a combined 37 3-point shots. After 40 minutes of basketball, the score would be tied at 77 each. This was uncharted territory for Kentucky, who had never had a foe closer than 8 points at the end of regulation.

Kentucky would go on to win on the strength of free throws by Aaron and Andrew Harrison, 89-86, but the aura of invincibility — indeed, inevitability — surrounding Kentucky had been shattered. A home escape in overtime against an unranked and lightly-regarded SEC foe just didn’t fit that narrative.

Read this from the postmortem, and feel the thrill of disappointment as it reminds you of another, more important game that didn’t end as well:

Ole Miss was able to take advantage of Kentucky’s switching, primarily by working it until they got a quickness or size mismatch. With their depth of wing players, they were able to get a lot of looks, although many of them weren’t all that clean. It didn’t matter. Clean, dirty, or draped, Ole Miss made shots, and in the process made Kentucky look very average defensively.

God, I hate myself sometimes.

Team OE DE Poss Score
Ole Miss 1.19 1.15 75 89-86 (OT)

At Texas A&M

After the near-catastrophe in the Ole Miss game, the Wildcats took to the road for only the second time all season, this time to far-flung College Station, Texas on the extreme western gerrymander of the "Southeastern" conference. The Blue and White faithful were thinking that even though the Texas A&M Aggies had one of the better teams in the SEC, they couldn’t possibly be strong enough to give the Big Blue juggernaut a run for their money…could they?

It turns out that they could, and did. For the second straight contest, the Wildcats found themselves in a dogfight with a team possessing the most unimposing of season of credentials. TAMU had virtually no impressive victories to date and had just dropped their first SEC game to Alabama on the road by double-digits. They, like Ole Miss before them, seemed a ripe candidate for a rout.

Unfortunately, Kentucky seemingly forgot to bring their offense with them to College Station. After over five minutes of bricklaying on the Reed Arena goals, the Wildcats found themselves down 9 points before they managed their first basket, a 3-pointer by Devin Booker. Kentucky would close the gap some, but by the time 15 minutes of the first stanza were gone, Kentucky was looking down the business end of an 11-point deficit. But a late surge would send them into the half down only three, 28-25.

As per usual, Kentucky would come out with fire in the second half and take the lead after the first 5 minutes, but they never could extend it and put the Aggies away. Kentucky got it out to seven points with six minutes left, but Aaron Harrison’s bricklaying continued unabated, and TAMU tied the game on two Danuel House free throws with 18 seconds remaining. Overtime ensued.

Overtime saw the Aggies take the lead late, and with 18 seconds remaining, TAMU was on the verge of upsetting UK, leading by one. But a brick by Aaron Harrison (4-20 on the day) led to an offensive rebound by Trey Lyles, and the ensuing foul sent him to the line, where he calmly made both to send the game to a second overtime.

The second overtime was a bit anticlimactic, as Kentucky would take the lead and keep it, eventually winning by six, 70-64. From the postmortem:

You cannot be happy about Kentucky’s defensive rebounding. 67% is good for most teams, but UK should be well over 75% on the DR component.

Team OE DE Poss Score
Texas A&M 0.91 0.83 77 89-86 (2OT)

The rest of January

After two very near misses, Kentucky got just what it needed — a break in the schedule. After two surprisingly game opponents, Kentucky got struggling Missouri, offensively challenged Alabama, a young Vanderbilt team, rebuilding South Carolina and Missouri and Alabama yet again. The games weren’t all blowouts, particularly Vanderbilt, where Riley LaChance dropped 16 on the Wildcats.

But despite that, Kentucky sailed into February as the #1 team in the land, and although they had shown themselves to be theoretically beatable, nobody had actually accomplished that feat. Another school of thought went that Kentucky was so mentally tough, even a close game was not enough to beat them. If only.

Team OE DE Poss Score
Mizzou 1.39 0.60 62 86-37
Alabama 1.30 0.89 54 70-48
Vandy 1.00 0.88 65 65-57
USC 1.02 0.75 57 58-43
Mizzou 1.10 0.84 63 69-53
Alabama 1.32 1.04 53 70-55

February

Georgia

The coming of February brought the half-way point in the SEC schedule. The Georgia Bulldogs, considered by most the best team in the East besides Kentucky due to the strange self-destruction of the Florida Gators, made their way up from Athens to Lexington for the first anticipated showdown of the SEC season.

When the contest was joined, Kentucky got out to an early 10-point lead and by halftime, that advantage had swelled to 15 points, 42-27. In most games, Kentucky would’ve cruised to victory, but that didn’t happen here. Even though UK pushed it out to 17 early in the 2nd half, the Dawgs weren’t without some fight, and by the 4:09 mark left in the game, the Bulldogs had it down to six. They couldn’t complete the comeback on the road, though, and Kentucky won by a comfortable 11 points, 69-58. But the game wasn’t a very good one for Kentucky, as memorialized in this comment from the postmortem:

Rebounding, as you see, was horrible, and what makes this particularly frustrating was that Marcus Thornton, Georgia’s leading rebounder, was out. This has now become less of a nuisance and more of a genuine concern, and we saw this back during the Big Blue Bahamas. Calipari has got to get rebounding fixed somehow, it is a glaring problem.

In the end, it would be rebounding that arguably ended Kentucky’s historic run in the Final Four. The handwriting was on the wall, in a way, and it would eventually lead to April sadness.

Team OE DE Poss Score
Georgia 1.08 0.91 65 69-58

Summary

The first half of the SEC season finally raised the specter of doubt into the minds of Kentucky fans, not just because of the two very narrow overtime victories over opponents reckoned to be of significantly lesser quality than UK, but also because of the tough fight Georgia delivered in Lexington.

At several points in the season, Kentucky looked absolutely indomitable; not just looking like the best team, but the best team by a mile. But the advent of 2016 dashed forever the myth of Kentucky’s perceived invulnerability entertained by some of the Big Blue Nation.

Kentucky’s ascension to the NCAA Championship would not be fait accompli — it would be opposed.