When it comes to Rupp Arena homecomings for a visiting coach, Sean Woods may set an unbreakable record Tuesday. Leading Southern against Kentucky will be the fourth time he’s returned to compete against his alma mater.
Woods did it twice as Mississippi Valley State coach and once as Morehead State coach.
When facetiously asked if Kentucky won all three of those games, Woods quipped, “Man, we won every last one of those games.”
That was a lighthearted response. He laughed. UK won the three games by an average of 19.7 points.
As if by rote, coaches insist that each game be treated the same. But Woods acknowledged that Tuesday is different. Rupp Arena is where “some of the fondest memories and greatest experiences of your life” took place, he said. “And to take my players there, now from what they’ve heard, they get to see it a little bit.”
What memories remain most vivid?
“Just my teammates,” Woods said. “The things we went through, the trials and tribulations . . . all the hard work we put in. It wasn’t easy. Coach (Rick Pitino) was tough on us. But it was all worth it in the end.”
Of course, Woods is one of the “Unforgettables,” four players who had their jerseys hung in the Rupp Arena rafters when their college careers ended in 1992. He, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey gained a form of immortality by staying at the scandal-ridden UK program in 1989 and helping it return to being a national contender three short years later.
Woods suggested three other former teammates also should not be forgotten.
“Derrick Miller made it fun because Derrick was fun to watch,” he said. “Derrick was a gunslinger. He finally got to play for a coach (Pitino) who let him shoot all the balls.”
Reggie Hanson also deserves recognition, Woods said. “He was the personality of our team as far as grit and toughness.”
Woods also cited Jeff Brassow, who was averaging 15 points before he tore an anterior cruciate ligament early in the 1991-92 season.
Of course, that season — and the careers of the Unforgettables — ended when Christian Laettner made the famous game-winning shot against Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament East Region finals.
“That’s always there, you know that,” Woods said of how that game still resonates. “That’s forever.”
Woods made the shot before the shot. He banked in a floater in the lane to put UK ahead 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left.
When asked if he had or still has nightmares about that loss to Duke, Woods said, “You have memories. It’s more daydreaming than night-dreaming. Anything can spark it. Watching a game. Watching Duke play. I can be watching the Cats and think of something.”
Of course, a recent conversation with stats savant Ken Pomeroy touched on numbers.
In Kentucky’s first seven games, Oscar Tshiebwe had gotten 28.6 percent of the offensive rebounds available when he was on the court.
“That’s a very high number,” Pomeroy said. “He’s basically as good as the average team right now just by himself getting offensive rebounds.”
The average team gets 28.4 percent of the available offensive rebounds.
Of Tshiebwe’s average, Pomeroy said, “It will definitely start decreasing as Kentucky goes against teams with more size.”
Going into this weekend, Pomeroy rated Kentucky’s schedule as the 347th toughest out of 358.
“It hasn’t been very good,” he said. “Part of that has been not just playing bad teams. But, obviously, playing at home as well makes the schedule even easier.”
Peer programs (Kansas, Duke and North Carolina) had an average strength of schedule of 111.7. The other 13 Southeastern Conference teams had an average strength of schedule at 210.4. The only SEC team with a weaker strength of schedule was Ole Miss at No. 351.
The early-season schedule made Pomeroy hesitant to assess this Kentucky team.
“I’d like to see Kentucky matched up with more competent opponents,” he said, “and we’ll get a much better idea of how good they are.”
Playing Southern on Tuesday will complete a seven-game stretch with the opponent’s average Pomeroy rating of 271.7. As of Friday, Pomeroy rated five of the opponents at 300 or lower.
After Southern (No. 300), UK’s schedule toughens with games against Notre Dame (No. 41), Ohio State (21) and Louisville (40).
“Those will be actual challenges for (Kentucky),” Pomeroy said.
A list of fans unhappy with Kentucky’s non-conference home schedule should include Tom Atkinson, a 1965 graduate of Paris High School and a retiree from the United States Probation Office.
Atkinson, who splits his time between Lakeland, Fla., and Lexington, expressed his displeasure in an email.
Of the seven home games prior to playing Louisville on Dec. 22, he wrote, “none of those games are worth the ticket price.”
Atkinson suggested that there is a non-conference home game to embrace.
“The game against High Point is one that will be well attended to honor a great coach and humanitarian,” he wrote. “It is well overdue.”
Of course, Kentucky plans to honor High Point Coach Tubby Smith, who was UK’s coach from 1997-98 through 2006-07.
“(UK Athletics Director) Mitch Barnhart is taking advantage of the ticket holders, knowing they’re not going to give up their tickets because of their love of the program and what it once stood for,” Atkinson wrote. “I know we can’t go back to the UKIT, but bringing in teams that belong on Eastern Kentucky’s schedule is stealing from those who have been there through thick-and-thin times.”
Albany played at EKU two nights before playing at Kentucky.
“If we can play conference games, home and away, in a season, why can’t they schedule, for example, Indiana, Cincinnati, Memphis, etc., and go to their place the following year?” Atkinson said. “I would love to see a home-and-home series with Gonzaga.”
Heading into this weekend, UK point guard Sahvir Wheeler continued to lead Division I with an average of 8.7 assists per game (61 in seven games).
His replacement at Georgia, Aaron Cook, ranked fifth nationally with an average of 7.0 assists (49 in seven games). Cook is a graduate transfer from Gonzaga. He started his college career playing for Southern Illinois.
As for assist-to-turnover ratio, Wheeler ranked 53rd at 2.77-to-1 (61 assists, 22 turnovers).
Cook ranked 145th at 1.96-to-1 (49 assists, 25 turnovers).
Incidentally, Ohio State point guard Jamari Wheeler (no relation) ranked 52nd in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.78-to-1 (25 assists, nine turnovers).
Kentucky plays Ohio State in Las Vegas on Dec. 18.
The gambling site BetOnline.ag has lengthened the odds of Kentucky winning the national championship: from 14-1 on Nov. 9 to 22-1 as of Friday.
“Kentucky does not seem like a true front-runner right now . . . , so they have drifted in odds,” the site’s SportsBook Manager, Adam Burns, wrote in an email. “With the recent upsets and it still so early in the season, this can fluctuate day to day.”
Gonzaga remained a 9-2 favorite to win it all. Duke and Purdue were co-second choices at 9-1.
Drew Timme of Gonzaga and Duke freshman Paolo Banchero are co-favorites at 7-2 to win the John R. Wooden Award.
Ex-Cat Johnny Juzang is the fourth choice at 12-1.
Oscar Tshiebwe is a 33-1 long shot.
To the family and friends of James “Jim” Melvin Potter. He was a past president of UK’s Committee of 101 service group. He died last Sunday at age 74 of complications due to Parkinson’s Disease.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in his name to The MAP Foundation in care of Karen Boens (1999 Richmond Road, Suite 300, Lexington 40502).
A memorial service will be held Monday beginning at 3 p.m. at Milward Funeral Directors, 1509 Trent Blvd., in Lexington.
To Brandon Knight. He turned 30 on Thursday. . . . To former Alabama player John Petty. He turned 23 on Thursday. . . . To former Tennessee All-American Bernard King. He turned 65 on Saturday. . . . To assistant coach Jai Lucas. He turns 33 on Sunday (today). . . . To Randy Noll. He turns 72 on Sunday (today). . . . To Coastal Carolina Coach (and former Auburn coach) Cliff Ellis. He turns 76 on Sunday (today). . . . To Sam Malone. He turns 30 on Monday. . . . To Sabrina Ionescu. She turns 24 on Monday. . . . To Giannis Antetokounmpo. He turns 27 on Monday.
Southern at No. 9 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network