Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, February 11, 2013 at 7:52 PM
In a college basketball season that’s already full of mysteries, two of the BIGGEST mysteries concern how good the Florida Gators are in terms of the national championship race…and how good the Kentucky Wildcats will be late in the season if their young talent starts to gel.
It’s been hard to get a great read on Florida because they’ve been rolling over bad SEC teams. That could mean they’re a superpower. But, it could also mean that they’re the New England Patriots of the South, running up the score on bad teams before having their weaknesses exposed by good teams. An early season robbery at Arizona was a blemish that wasn’t necessarily a bad sign…until Arizona lost later on that same court to UCLA and California! Was Florida a top five team? Or were they in the class of UCLA and California but enjoying a softer conference?
Kentucky was picked Preseason top 5 because of Coach John Calipari’s reputation and because he always recruits blue-chippers who are supposed to be fast-tracking to the NBA. This year’s team has fallen WAY short of expectations. For awhile they looked like a bubble team. A road win at Ole Miss pushed them firmly into the Dance…but there’s far from agreement about where they should be seeded in the Dance (which you’ll see in a moment).
Within a string of very interesting TV games that’s going to go on for the rest of the month, Tuesday’s Kentucky/Florida game may be the most important one for sports bettors and handicappers because it will help us get a read on how good these teams are likely to play vs. quality opposition in the postseason. A pretender may be exposed. In terms of the “eye test,” maybe TWO pretenders will be exposed. Or, maybe this is where Kentucky makes a statement to the sports world that its young talent is poised to be ready when it matters.
Let’s run the matchup through our gauntlet of indicators…
Kentucky: 17-6 (8-2 in the SEC)
Florida: 19-3 (9-1 in the SEC)
Kentucky may be 8-2 in league play, but they’ve had a few others where they didn’t really impress. You get the sense that they’d be under .500 in the Big 10 and maybe even the Big 12. But, that win at Ole Miss did show a lot of promise about a second half surge. A win in Gainesville, and the Wildcats would suddenly be tied for first place with a temporary tie-breaker edge thanks to that heads-up victory.
Kentucky: #16 with Sagarin, #18 with Pomeroy
Florida: #2 with Sagarin, #1 with Pomeroy
Florida has had monster victory margins in SEC play, which has them ranked as even with Indiana by the computers. It’s entirely possible that this is accurate, and that Florida is going to coast to the Final Four because they’re so much better than everybody else. They are capable of bad games though. The parallel with the New England Patriots is a fair point for handicappers to consider. Looking great vs. mediocrity may not matter once the season is down to teams who aren’t mediocre. Note that both computers have Kentucky up in the range where they’d be a #4 or #5 seed. Early disappointments have taken them off the sports’ radar for the time being. Most fans and media types DON’T seem them that high.
COMPUTER STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE RANKINGS
Kentucky: #82 with Sagarin, #90 with Pomeroy
Florida: #32 with Sagarin, #56 with Pomeroy
This helps shed some light on why Kentucky fell off the map! They didn’t post a great won-lost record even with a relatively friendly schedule. They had a few tough tests…but also a lot of home cupcake games. The poor SEC really hurts both teams strengths of schedule…and could be an indicator that neither will be truly battle tested by the time the Dance comes around. Big 10 teams play more tough games in three weeks than these two will throughout their whole league slate. In terms of analyzing Tuesday Night’s game…edge so far to Florida.
WON-LOST RECORDS VS. SAGARIN’S TOP 50
More of the same here. Those are low numbers of game totals for this deep into the season. At least Florida is playing .667 ball. Kentucky has lost 80% of their toughest games! Yes, the Wildcats are improving. But, some of that may just be a scoreboard illusion from playing in a weak conference.
JOE LUNARDI’S BRACKETOLOGY
Kentucky: projected #9 seed
Florida: projected #2 seed
While the computers were hinting that Kentucky might be a Sweet 16 team, Lunardi sees them more as an 8-9 team that could play spoiler against a top seed in the Round of 32. Because of their talent, Kentucky will be a tough out for whoever they face. What we see in these two regular season meeting against Florida will give us a sense of who they are and aren’t capable of spoiling.
POMEROY’S ADJUSTED OFFENSE RANKINGS
Florida has weapons they can use all over the court. Facing a soft schedule has allowed them to really pile up their points-per-possession. Pomeroy tries to adjust for strength of schedule too. But, we’ve seen in the past that his methodology tends to overrate teams who can light it up from long range. When the bombs fall, those teams look GREAT. The bombs don’t always fall in neutral site tourney games. If Florida wins big in Gainesville because of treys, think about fading them in the rematch in Lexington at the end of the regular season. Florida’s offense is legitimately strong…just like the New England Patriots.
POMEROY’S ADJUSTED DEFENSE RANKINGS
Good stuff here from Florida. That’s why we won’t give up on them as a legit national championship threat until we see them struggle vs. quality (the recent Patriots haven’t had great defenses!). Kentucky has been a disappointment by Calipari’s standards. His recent teams have graded out very well on this end because he teaches defense so well. One reason this current team is struggling against expectations is that the young stars as a unit aren’t learning what they need to. Having one guy who can block shots isn’t the same as having team defense.
POMEROY’S ADJUSTED TEMPO RANKINGS
Once again, we have a fast team and a slow team. What’s going to happen in the Big Dance when the slow teams finally start pairing up…and the fast teams finally start pairing up! The home team typically forces its tempo onto a game…which means Florida will slow things down and dare the Kentucky kids to play with patience. In terms of the straight up winner, that favors Florida. In terms of the Vegas spread, do you want to lay that many points if the tempo is going to be slow? Point value is connected to pace. Tougher to win a blowout in a slow game.
To us, there are currently fewer question marks about Florida than there are about Kentucky in terms of the big picture. Both are deep into the SEC slate…and Florida has been much more impressive on the scoreboard even if the won-lost records are close. The Gators have earned this pointspread. Handicappers must determine if Kentucky’s maturity curve is about to kick into high gear at this stage of the season in a way that will create pointspread value.
JIM HURLEY has some ideas about that…but also has his eye on these other Tuesday Night hardwood battles…
#4 Michigan at #8 Michigan State
Portland Trailblazers at Miami Heat
Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz
Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors
Phoenix Suns at LA Lakers
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Back with you tomorrow to study the always electrifying North Carolina/Duke game, the highlight of another very busy Wednesday slate.
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