Alabama Basketball Preview: #25 Kentucky

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

The Crimson Tide hit the road one last time looking for an away victory

Any time a SEC program goes to Lexington to take on the Kentucky Wildcats (21-8, 11-5 SEC) it's a big deal. Playing Kentucky in basketball is equivalent to playing Alabama in football, or LSU in baseball. They will always get their opponent's best shot. With that said, Alabama should be eager to head to the Commonwealth for their final road game of the season, as it's make or break for the Crimson Tide's hopes of notching a W in the victory column on the road. Kentucky is, of course, LOADED with elite talent. But as the Wildcats have shown the last two seasons, that doesn't necessarily mean that the they are an elite team. They are extremely young, and not very deep as far as numbers are concerned. Kentucky is coming off of it's worst performance of the season in a loss to lowly South Carolina, but this is still a very good team. Winning on the road in Lexington won't be easy. John Calipari will light a fire under these guys after the shocking loss to the Gamecocks.

Did I mention that Kentucky is loaded with talent? A trio of freshman guards get all of the playing time for Kentucky in the backcourt. They all have great size as well, as they all are listed at 6'6. Freshman G James Young (14.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.8 SPG) has been the creator on offense. He leads the team in FGAs, and his numbers have been good, but nothing spectacular (40.7% FG%, 34.1% 3P%, 66.1% FT%). His athleticism is fantastic, but he still needs time to polish his skills before he becomes an elite player, just as most freshmen do. Twin Freshmen Gs Aaron (13.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.2 SPG) and Andrew (11.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.5 APG) Harrison have a great blend of talent, athleticism, and size. Aaron has been the better scorer (41.9% FG%, 31.3% 3P%, 81.3% FT%) and defender, but Andrew has been a better ball handler and distributor. Andrew has actually shot better from the three point line than Aaron (36.2%), but he doesn't shoot it nearly as often. The rest of his numbers (37.8% FG%, 74.8% FT%) are solid, but not great by any stretch. If there is one common theme around this team, it's that they are all extremely talented players, but they have yet to refine their game enough to where they can reach their spectacular potential. This is no surprise when you consider the lack of upperclassman on this team. The "experienced" leaders on this team are both sophomores.

In the frontcourt, Freshman F Julius Randle (15.5 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 BPG) has been the most polished of the newcomers. He still turns the ball over too much (2.8 TOPG), and needs more development defensively, but he has been a stud down low for Kentucky. Randle is one of the leading contenders for SEC POY for a reason. One of the few players in the country to average a double-double, he's done it while shooting well (51.8% FG%, 72.8% FT%) and by being able to run the court in transition in a way not many post players can. He will be a matchup nightmare for our big men. Joining Randle in the frontcourt is the pair of "experienced" sophomores that I referenced before. Sophomore F Willie Cauley-Stein (7.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 2.9 BPG) doesn't make the same kind of impact offensively or on the boards that Randle does, but his defense is fantastic (93.3 defensive rating) and he protects the basketball at a much better rate (0.9 TOPG). Cauley-Stein is no slouch from the field (60.1% FG%), but his free throw shooting has been dreadful (49.3% FT%). Sophomore F Alex Poythress (6.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.8 BPG) has been a solid player for the Cats, and his athleticism has delivered some serious highlight material, but he has been a bit of a disappointment through two seasons for Kentucky. His shooting from the field is solid (47.9% FG%), but his free throw shooting (62.5%) and three point shooting (28.6%) leave a bit to be desired. He does play good defense and takes care of the basketball, however. Freshman C Dakari Johnson (4.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.5 BPG) has great size (7'0) but it doesn't seem like he has transitioned too well to the college level. Regardless, his height makes him very useful for protecting the rim and cleaning up the boards. The Cats have a few other players who register a few minutes per game, but they don't make much of an impact.

Three Keys to Victory

1. Limit the Size Advantage. Kentucky has serious size. Of the seven guys who regularly play, the three guards (Young and the Harrisons) are all 6'6, Poythress is 6'8, Randle is 6'9 (but plays like he is 7'1), and Cauley-Stein andJohnson are both 7'0. Oh, and they are ridiculously athletic. Because of this, Kentucky is 4th in the country in RPGand 9th in blocked shots. Alabama has to take good shots on offense (meaning that there needs to be good separation) and has to prevent Kentucky from going something like +10 in rebounds. That won't be easy. But this key has to play out well in order for Alabama to have any chance of beating this team at their place.

2. Force Turnovers. Kentucky's youth and inexperience makes them very vulnerable to pressure. They turn the ball over quite a bit, mostly by making careless mistakes or forcing something that they think may be there. If Alabama has any advantage in this game, this is it. Trevor Releford and Retin Obasohan need to come up large in this area.

3. Defensive Toughness. Kentucky is on a bit of a slide in recent weeks offensively, and in their two most recent games (both losses), the opposing defenses have played very physical with the Wildcats. I have noticed that when this happens, the young Cats get very riled up, and start being very clumsy offensively. They do a lot of dribble-drive, hoping to draw contact or create an open look from three. The problem is A) They don't always get the call and endup taking a bad shot, B) They miss the free throws (68.6% as a team), or C) They miss the three pointer (32.2% as a team). This isn't surprising for such a young team, and it is the lone reason why they lost to South Carolina on Saturday. Consider that Kentucky was +18(!!!!) in rebounding and only -4 in turnovers that game, but went 14/52 from the field. Alabama needs to disrupt their offensive gameplan and force them into this sloppy style of play they have gotten into recently.

The Trevor Releford Watch

- Against Auburn, Releford went for another 16 points on 6/12 shooting, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals. The guy just keeps putting out awesome performances. Within the SEC, he is still 5th in PPG (18.8), 1st in steals (2.3), 2nd in free throw percentage (86.9%), 3rd in Adjusted FG% (60.2%), and 10th in APG (3.1). Show me someone in the SEC who has better numbers across the board. I'll wait.

-T Relly is now 6th all-time in career points here at the Capstone with 1,825 points. Jerry Harper, former All-American, is next on the list with 1,851 points.

Alabama has really put its chances of coming away with a win on the road this season in serious danger, waiting until the final game against the Kentucky Wildcats to try and pull it off. However, as much talent as Kentucky has, they are a beatable team. Alabama will have to play its best road game of the year to pull it off though. The game is set for 8:00 pm CST on ESPN.

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