The Crimson Tide basketball team fell 66-55 to the #3 Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday night in Lexington's Rupp Arena. Roll 'Bama Roll reacts with some initial impressions...
- Neither the loss, nor the way it happened was terribly surprising. We got a small lead through the first ten minutes or so and were within striking distance as late as the last three minutes or so of the game. However, as usual, long scoring droughts and missed opportunities prevented us from winning what turned out to be, thanks to our defense and some sloppy play on Kentucky's part, a winnable game. Take nothing away from Kentucky though. They didn't play near their best and still beat us by 11. They are a legit national championship contender and their mix of size, speed, power, and skill will be hard to match if their young lineup can stay focused throughout March.
- The loss was Bama's fourth in a row, dropping us to 13-11 on the season and 3-7 in SEC play. The only way we make the Dance now is by winning the SEC tournament and getting the automatic bid. An NIT bid is not out of the question but we would have to turn things around quickly for that to happen. Probably a 7-9 SEC record would be necessary to get us to the NIT bubble, at which point a win or two in Nashville at the SEC tournament would certainly get us in. I think we could win any of our last six regular season games, but then again we could lose any of them too. I'd say it mostly depends on the team's attitude and mindset.
- In my pre-game Q&A session with Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue, I named three things we needed to do to win: score in transition, prevent offensive rebounds, and hit outside shots. Like I did after the loss to Florida last week, I'll assess how we did in each key area in the following three bullets.
Read below the jump for more assessment on the team's performance as well as some observations on individual player performances...
- The #1 thing I said we needed to do was create turnovers and score in transition. Frustratingly we created plenty of turnovers and ample opportunities to score in transition. Enough in fact that had we capitalized on them, we almost certainly would have brought the game down to the wire and may very well have won. On no less than four fast break chances in the second half we got the ball all the way to the rim and couldn't get it to drop, with a couple of those including point-blank put-back chances that we also failed to convert. None of the chances were wide open, as each was at least slightly contested, but none were blocks either and they were all chances literally right at the rim. We succeeded in this key in terms of creating the necessary turnovers and fast break chances we needed to win, we just failed to capitalize on them.
- The second thing I said we needed to do was limit Kentucky's offensive rebounds. We did hold them to just slightly under their average of 42%, (13 offensive boards off of 34 missed shots, for 38%) but still gave up a few too many for us to do enough to win. In the first half, when we really had Kentucky on the ropes, giving up 7 offensive rebounds was huge. Although they didn't convert on most of their second chances, it really limited our own opportunities and made up for all of their turnovers. Overall we were out-rebounded 42-35, not a major surprise given Kentucky's overall size and Alabama's lack thereof. Still, holding them to under 33% offensive rebounding was realistic and had we been able to do so I don't think Kentucky would have been able to build as big a lead as they did early in the second half.
- The third key I mentioned was taking and making outside shots. Although we only made four 3s on the night, we were able to sink an additional six long jumpers from outside the lane, which helped keep our offense plodding along on a night when we were almost completely unable to establish anything in the post. Still, only 29% from beyond the arc was not going to get it done. Kentucky did a good job limiting our wide-open looks, but we needed to be able to knock down at least five or six of the 14 looks that we did get to win at Rupp.
- Overall I thought our gameplan was excellent. As usual, Grant's defensive scheme put us into a position to win. Said UK coach John Calipari: "You're finding out that there are a bunch of good coaches in this league. He gave his team a chance to win wouldn't you say? On the road in Lexington, Kentucky, his team had a chance to win. That's what you do as a coach and they kept the game in the 60s. We wanted it in the 80s." So yeah, we forced Kentucky to play the game just like we wanted, and honestly had we executed just marginally better in the key areas I mentioned above we probably would have pulled the upset.
- I liked the way our team competed. We played tough and kept the intensity level pretty much where it needed to be throughout. We kept the crowd at Rupp about as quiet as you could ever hope to keep 23,000+ basketball-crazy fans in one building quiet without actually beating the home team. Credit goes to the players for that. Said Grant: "If you look at tonight's game, I thought we competed. That was something that was a positive. I'm not a guy that's in to moral victories, but our guys tonight did what I asked them to do. They competed, stayed together and fought for 40 minutes." This more than anything gives me hope we can turn things around and win some of these games down the stretch.
- Individually, there was no question about MVP honors on the night. Freshman small forward Tony Mitchell led the team in both scoring (13 points) and rebounds (7) and was second in assists (2). On the defensive end, he was also instrumental in executing the traps that frustrated the Kentucky guards, especially in the early going. The most encouraging thing about Mitchell though is the fact that he seems to have found his stroke from beyond the arc, going 3-for-6 against Kentucky. In the last three games he has nailed seven 3s while shooting over 50% from the arc. If this is a real upward trend and not just a hot streak, he could be a big factor down the stretch this season and a potential breakout player in the SEC next year.
- Down in the post, things weren't so pretty from an individual standpoint. Sophomore forward JaMychal Green did manage 11 points and 6 rebounds, second on the team in both categories, but really he struggled all night against the powerful Kentucky post players. For the first time in ages, he played the entire game without foul trouble, which is obviously a good thing, but also means that he was even less productive than his totals might indicate. He was out-positioned all night on the offensive end, rarely getting any good looks near the basket. When he did get touches down low, he more often than not tried resorted to fall-aways, or in one case an ill-advised behind-the-back move. He simply allowed himself to be forced out of position too often both on offense and on the glass. Credit here obviously has to go the the 'Cats post players though. DeMarcus Cousins is a monster rebounder and even Daniel Orton off the bench was able to out-position and out-muscle Green for much of the night.
- Junior forward Chris Hines was definitely the coaches' choice for playing time down low along with Green. Hines did a pretty good job rebounding and as usual did a nice job defensively around the rim. Like Green, he was also out-muscled much of the night, and he has a tendency to disappear on the offensive end. It says a lot about his defense though that the coaching staff apparently trusts him more on the floor than junior Justin Knox, who is superior offensively. Knox only played 12 minutes, a result of both Green's lack of foul trouble and foul trouble of his own.
- Senior point guard Mikhail Torrance had his worst overall game production-wise in a long while. He only manged 8 points and 3 assists on 2-for-11 shooting. Despite some well-below-average stats, he actually did a nice job avoiding turnovers and was able to penetrate to the basket a good many times. Unfortunately, he simply could not convert around the basket all night. Torrance is typically an excellent finisher around the rim but for some reason he simply could not get his layup attempts to fall. His misses were partly responsible for the failure to capitalize on transition opportunities that I discussed above, and he also failed to convert when we was able to penetrate in the halfcourt set. Again, he actually didn't play too badly overall, giving himself adequate chances to score, but he simply couldn't hit. Hopefully this was just one of those nights for him. We need our leading scorer to convert those chances the rest of the way.
- On the perimeter, we got a mixed bag of results. Both senior Anthony Brock and junior Senario Hillman started in place of Torrance (not sure why?) and played over 25 minutes each. Both did some nice things but also racked up a few too many turnovers, with three each. Brock was surprisingly able to get all the way to the rim for a layup on two occasions and nearly scored on a third, something we haven't seen from him all year. Hillman actually knocked down some shots early and was his usual disruptive self on the defensive end, but was not a factor offensively for most of the second half. Junior Charvez Davis is still struggling to overcome a banged-up knee, and we need his 3-point shooting back badly. For the fourth straight game, he was not able to go more than ten minutes and was rather ineffective when he was in. Freshman Ben Eblen did not see action in this game.
- I encourage everyone to check out what was said about us in the post-game over at A Sea of Blue. You can read their post-game reaction and comments here. They were very complimentary of our team and our coaches. And here's the full quote from Calipari regarding our performance on the night: "They're an athletic team. They came out and made some shots early. We were all over them and they came out and made shots. And I'm telling you this is how Alabama has played all year. They have had three one-point losses. They create turnovers. They play aggressive. They play physical. They play good defense. They were a little undersized at times, which is why we rebounded like we did. But they had more offensive rebounds than we did. They played well. Here is what Anthony (Grant) did. You're finding out that there are a bunch of good coaches in this league. He gave his team a chance to win wouldn't you say? On the road in Lexington , Kentucky , his team had a chance to win. That's what you do as a coach and they kept the game in the 60s. We wanted it in the 80s. Now I will tell you, we missed some point blank shots in the first half. Eight wide open threes and we missed all eight. Now we missed some shots to make this a higher scoring game, but you have to give them credit. They did their thing and they were grinding it out. They did well."
- Next up is a home date with the surprisingly resurgent Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday afternoon. This will be only Bama's second weekend home conference game, so it should provide a nice chance for Tide fans in the area to catch what I think should be a very good game. Arkansas is on fire right now, but I see no reason to suspect we can't beat them on Saturday. As usual, we'll have much more on this game in the coming days.
I'll leave you with a quote from one of the two players who should form the nucleus of this team over the next couple of seasons. It comes from freshman Tony Mitchell following the game last night: "We are trying to build something here. We want to build our program with character so we are able to win." The Process continues. Roll Tide.