The Crimson Tide basketball team is coming off by far its most disappointing performance of the season in a home loss to Vanderbilt last night. There's no rest for the weary, though, and no time to regroup. The Tide must now prepare for an early game on Saturday morning. On the road. In Rupp Arena. Against #2-ranked Kentucky. The game is scheduled to tip off at 11:00 am CST and will be televised nationally on CBS.
What can be said about last night's debacle against Vanderbilt? A lot, frankly, and Bama fans have a right to feel disappointed, discouraged, frustrated, and very worried about where this team is heading. There's no sense in focusing on those things now, though, with by far the biggest test of the season looming tomorrow morning.
Kentucky needs no hype. They were the preseason favorite to win the SEC, and they are many people's favorite to win the national championship. They are currently 18-1 with wins big wins over Kansas, North Carolina, and Louisville in non-conference play. Their only loss came on the road at Indiana on a miracle buzzer-beater. They are tied with Vanderbilt for 1st place in the SEC with a perfect 4-0 record. And in case there was any doubt, they are projected to be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by everyone and their brother.
The breakout star for the Wildcats has been 6'11" freshman Anthony Davis, a legitimate national Player of the Year candidate. He is a very similar player to Mississippi State's , who absolutely abused Alabama last Saturday--same size, quickness, and skill set. The difference is that Davis is an even better shot-blocker. How good? Let this blow your mind: he's already set the single-season blocks record for Kentucky basketball--in mid-January. He swats nearly 5 shots each game, a number I can't ever recall seeing in my lifetime. Clearly his presence in the paint will be a real manhood check for an Alabama frontline that frankly has gotten pushed around for two games in a row against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Davis is an NBA lottery pick today and is arguably the most dominant big man in the country right now.
The second-most dominant player has probably been another true freshman, 6'7" wing player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kidd-Gilchrist averages 13.2 points/game, 7.5 rebounds/game, and 2.1 assists/game. He is an NBA talent in his own right and as his numbers suggest, he affects the game in nearly every facet, as the top wing players often do. He's explosive, athletic, has a good motor, and has great skill and shooting to make it all count.
Somehow 6'9" sophomore forward Terrence Jones isn't even considered a star on this team anymore--and he was the star on last year's top-15 team and was considered by many to be a 1st-round lock in last year's NBA Draft had he decided to leave school. Instead he came back, and while his 11.8 points/game and 6.3 rebounds/game might be down from last year, he's still considered a 1st-round NBA player and is still one of the top post players in the country.
The backcourt scoring leader is 6'4" sophomore guard Doron Lamb, who leads the team in scoring with 14.0 points/game. Lamb is the team's top outside shooter, nailing 46% of his 3-point attempts. Lamb is probably the least flashy of the Kentucky starters, but he may be the most savvy and efficient of the bunch and, again, he does lead the team in scoring.
As has been the case every year under John Calipari, Kentucky's point guard is a true freshman superstar recruit. This year's edition is 6'2" Marquis Teague. Teague has had a somewhat up-and-down year by Calipari freshman point guard standards, but he's still a guy nearly every coach in America would trade for. He's not a great outside shooter and he is a bit turnover prone, but he still creates on offense both scoring (10.5 points/game) and in passing (4.5 assists/game). In fact, he is third in the SEC in assists/game.
The top player off the bench is the team's veteran leader, 6'8" senior wing player Darius Miller. Miller would be the outright star on nearly every team in the SEC, but he's content playing the sixth-man role for Kentucky. To his credit, he does it well, averaging 9.8 points/game and 2.3 assists/game. He is also a good spot-up shooter and an extremely good defender, where is length and quickness become a big matchup problem for most teams.
Calipari doesn't like to use a deep playing rotation, and those six players--Teague, Lamb, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, Davis, and Miller--combine to play right at 90% of Kentucky's minutes. What is left of the remaining minutes does to 6'9" freshman wing player Kyle Wiltjer and 6'11" senior forward Eloy Vargas.
Kentucky is a terrible matchup for Alabama. Not only do they have three 1st-round NBA players in their lineup, but their strength comes in their size and physicality in the paint. Bama's last two opponents have been the 2nd and 3rd strongest teams in the SEC in the interior, and both proved to be bad matchups for an Alabama team that relies so heavily on scoring, defending, and rebounding inside.
Saying that Alabama has no chance to win is being extreme. Alabama has proven capable of playing with and beating very good teams this year, and before Saturday's last-minute road loss to a top-20 Mississippi State team and Thursday's awful showing at home against a soon-to-be top-15 Vanderbilt team, Bama looked to be rolling along as a team that could compete at the top of the SEC and garner a good seed for the NCAA Tournament. This game on Saturday isn't one that any team in the country would be expected to win, not playing at vaunted Rupp Arena.
Clearly a win would be a complete season-changer and would do wonders beyond belief for the team's tournament resume and confidence. However, short of actually coming out of Lexington with a road win over the #2 team in the country, the Tide can prove (to themselves and their fans) that Wednesday's abomination of an effort was a mere fluke and not a sign of this team's competitiveness (or lack thereof) with a game effort and a willingness and ability to compete with Kentucky on their home court. Another abysmal effort and blowout loss however could put the team's confidence on the rocks heading into a stretch of games that Bama will need to win if it wants to stay in position for an NCAA Tournament bid. Hope for the best.