Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Early Reads

Kentucky and Illinois are both through a month and about a third of their seasons, and what can we say about the two squads?

How about too soon to tell.

Following wins over their respective biggest out-of-conference rivals (a 61-49 win by the Cats over Louisville on Saturday, a 73-70 win by the Illini over Missouri last night) Kentucky stands at 8-3, Illinois at 11-2.

Of the 5 losses, only the Illini's home loss to unranked Maryland could even remotely be considered a bad loss. Kentucky's 3 came against #1 UCLA and #18 Memphis in Maui, and #2 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The other Illini loss was to #9 Arizona in Phoenix -- tantamount to a road game.

And yet the question marks for both still outweigh either the positives or the negatives.

While the Cats' wins have come against some OK comp (DePaul, Indiana, Louisville among others), they are 0-3 against ranked teams and have yet to post a real statement win. The 11 Illini victims have been mostly the little sisters of the poor. Prior to Mizzou, a narrow win over Bradley is their best, and their closest to a win over a major conference team (assuming the MVC is not a major conference, and that such distinctions matter anymore).

Kentucky has found one solid option, center Randolph Morris, who is averaging 16 points and 8 boards -- even after pulling a foul-induced donut against the Cards. Beyond that the only building certainty seems to be some terrific half-court defense. In the six games since making it back to the mainland, opponents have been shooting 32% from the floor, and a mere 24% from beyond the arc. The ability to force turnovers is still unproven (opponents are turning the ball over on a mere 19% of their possessions -- the lowest for a set of UK opponents since 1973-74) -- but if that does happen things could get very scary for opposing offenses.

More scary that it already is for the Cats' offense, hopefully. While some blips have been seen on the radar (e.g., Jodie Meeks' 18 vs. the 'Ville) no consistent second options (not to mention third or fourth) have yet to bubble up. As a result, this year's offensive production has been firmly stuck in neutral -- on a pace unseen since the Ford administration (the offensive points-per-possession is the lowest since 1976). While there's still time to turn that around, it won't get any easier once the cream of the SEC is guarding the ball.

The Illini have their share of question marks as well -- starting with who's suiting up. Three key players (Rich McBride, Jamar Smith and Brian Randall) have each missed multiple games through injury or suspension. As a result, the group that will will likely see the most floor time in the Big Ten has only found the floor in the last couple of games. While Smith seems to have hit the ground running (48% on his 3-pointers this year), Randall has been slowly working his way in (his 24 minutes against Mizzou are his high to date).

Both will be welcome full-timers to a rotation that has leaned heavily on Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt, and found them both up to the task so far (25 points and 13 boards per game between them). A road tilt at Xavier next week may be one of their tougher remaining tasks, as an extremely favorable B-10 sked keeps them out of Columbus and Madison, while forcing the league's clear leaders to come to Champaign. Despite the serious doubts of Big Ten Wonk, there have to be reasons for optimism in Central Illinois.


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