Here’s something you’ve surely heard John Calipari say and will likely hear him repeat as this season unfolds: Kentucky plays all the perceived best teams in the Southeastern Conference twice.
All of Kentucky’s five home-and-home series in SEC play involve two games against opponents boasting one of the league’s seven best NCAA Evaluation Tool ratings going into this weekend. UK is one of the seven. So the outlier is LSU, which has the fifth-best NET and plays Kentucky only once.
Three of UK’s home-and-home opponents are in the NET’s top 20: No. 5 Tennessee, No. 17 Mississippi State and No. 18 Auburn. The other two are in the top 50: No. 33 Florida and No. 45 Vanderbilt, the latter coming to Rupp Arena next weekend.
If you suspect television’s influence, you would be right. TV wants higher ratings that potentially come with the best games. Kentucky is a marquee program. Ipso facto, Kentucky will be more likely to play the best SEC opponents twice.
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“Yes, there are things that go along with being a bigger program . . . ,” said Dan Ochs, the director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. “We’re going to pay closer attention to Kentucky’s schedule.”
Ochs liked the word “consult” to describe television’s impact on the SEC schedule. Associate commissioner Herb Vincent acknowledged that TV wishes are one of many factors in making up the league schedule. TV will find games involving the perceived top teams more appealing, he said.
Of course, Kentucky plays Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida twice each season. Those three programs are permanent home-and-home opponents for UK.
Auburn and Mississippi State — two perceived SEC championship contenders — filled out Kentucky’s allotment of five home-and-home opponents.
There is no set rotation of opponents to fill out Kentucky’s five home-and-home matchups. Because Kentucky is Kentucky, it’s more likely that teams perceived to be among the SEC’s best will fill those spots. For instance, Texas A&M (Tyler Davis, Robert Williams) and Missouri (Michael Porter Jr.) played Kentucky twice last season.
So TV’s desire for marquee matchups is a factor in Kentucky’s challenging league schedule?
“No question,” said Mike Tranghese, a consultant working to improve the overall profile of SEC basketball.
Tranghese recalled his days as commissioner of the Big East. Like the SEC, the Big East had an unbalanced schedule. Tranghese asked the coaches to let him make the league schedules.
“I said, ‘I’m going to make the best games,’” he said. “I said, ‘So, if you’re the best team in the league, you’re going to have the hardest schedule.’ And somebody said to me, ‘that’s not fair.’ I said, ‘Guess what? No matter what we do, it’s not going to be fair.’”
Kentucky should embrace its nothing-but-the-best SEC schedule, Tranghese said. It represents more chances to win marquee games and improve UK’s NCAA Tournament resume.
Winning the SEC championship is relatively meaningless. Victories in marquee games are more important.
Stats savant Ken Pomeroy rated the SEC as the fourth-best conference. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected six SEC teams receiving bids to the 2019 NCAA Tournament: Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, LSU and Florida. That’s fewer teams than the Big Ten (10), ACC (seven) and Big 12 (seven).
A question: Might these relatively modest appraisals inhibit the ability of SEC teams to dramatically improve their NCAA Tournament profiles during league play?
Not to worry about upward mobility, said Pomeroy and Lunardi.
“Since there are eight SEC teams in the top 50, there should be plenty of opportunities to get quality wins,” Pomeroy said in an email message.
Lunardi agreed. He saw room for upward and downward mobility for SEC teams in January and February.
“The real story is Tennessee, which is very much in play for a No. 1 seed,” Lunardi said in an email message. “Next headline is UK, which is now No. 14 overall (No. 4 seed) on our board after the win at Louisville . . . Can still climb given that the Vols and Auburn remain ahead of them on seed list.”
Lunardi saw a No. 1 seed theoretically possible for either Kentucky, Tennessee or Auburn. “If any is able to dominate the conference regular season,” he said.
As for other SEC teams, Lunardi noted Florida’s improving profile.
“Florida, BTW, is much more solid (No. 31) after thrashing Butler,” he said. “And Ole Miss begins the new year as team No. 69 (First Team Out). ‘Bama (No. 74) and Vandy (No. 75) also within striking distance. So I would expect bracket drama in the SEC both at the top and among the bubble teams.”
During an SEC teleconference Thursday, coaches were asked about the NCAA Evaluation Tool. With this new measuring formula, the NCAA puts a cap on margin of victory being a factor at 10 points. This was done to try to block any impulse to blow out opponents to gain favor with the Selection Committee.
But the NET’s emphasis on offensive and defensive efficiencies encourages teams not to let up against outclassed opponents. A bigger margin figures to be the product of better efficiencies.
“We told our team we’ve never going to try to run up a score,” Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew said before adding, “We’re going to play as hard as we can.”
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin taught math when he coached on the high school level. He said that the NET can help in the evaluation of teams for the NCAA Tournament. But the NET should not be the sole determining factor.
“I studied numbers,” Martin said. “And I taught people the importance of numbers. And I’m just telling you I can spin numbers to make you think whatever you want to think.”
Martin said he was not “a metric guy” nor “an analytics guy.”
“I always believed metrics should be a source of reference,” he said. “It can’t be something you live by.”
Congressman Andy Barr, who represents Kentucky’s Sixth District, is a UK fan. So, yes, he watched the telecast of last weekend’s game at Louisville.
“That’s a mandatory,” he said. “Not just because I’m the congressman representing the Big Blue Nation. But because I never miss Kentucky-Louisville. I don’t care what else is going on.”
Barr attended the UK Law School after getting an undergrad degree from the University of Virginia.
He recalled an impromptu trip to watch Kentucky play in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. When then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan canceled a vote on a bill changing the Affordable Care Act, this gave Barr an idea.
“I looked up at the clock and I said, ‘I can get down to Memphis,’” he said.
Barr shared a cab to the airport with Steve Cohen, the congressman representing Tennessee’s Ninth District (which includes Memphis). He got to the arena four minutes into the first half of UK’s South Region semifinal game against UCLA. He sat next to UK President Eli Capilouto.
Barr stayed for Kentucky’s game against North Carolina two days later (won by Luke Maye). He also attended UK’s game against Kansas State in the 2018 South Region semifinals.
The SEC teleconference serves as a means for reporters to ask questions of league coaches. Ideally, reporters can learn about the teams and hear the opinions of coaches.
When Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl’s turn came, he noticed that only one reporter asked a question. It came from a person identified with “Inside Auburn Tigers.”
When SEC moderator Craig Pinkerton told Pearl there were no more questions, the Auburn coach said, “OK. Thank you.”
Then Pearl added, “That’s (he laughed) I got one question from our guy here in Auburn, huh? I probably could have accomplished that here with a press conference here at Auburn. All right.”
Pinkerton then apologized for the lack of questions.
“That’s OK, that’s OK,” Pearl said. “It kind of tells you where our program is at. Thank you.”
To Steve Bruce. He turned 52 on Thursday. . . . To Tyler Ulis. He turned 23 on Saturday. . . . To Isaac Humphries. He turned 21 on Saturday. . . . To Larry Stamper. He turns 69 on Sunday (today). . . . To Bobby Perry. He turns 34 on Monday. . . . To Kirk Chiles. He turns 70 on Tuesday. . . . To former Ole Miss point guard and later coach Rod Barnes. He turns 53 on Tuesday. . . . To Terrence Jones. He turns 27 on Wednesday.