It's the game that every SEC basketball team both relishes and fears every year: a date with the #1 Kentucky Wildcats (16-0, 3-0 SEC). This is the one game that every SEC team will sell out for, and the attendance in Tuscaloosa Saturday will be no exception. There is good reason, of course, why playing Kentucky is so highly anticipated. They are pretty good at the whole basketball thing. John Calipari has built a program by grabbing the most elite of the elite high school recruits every year and doing a fantastic job of getting them to buy into his system and play together. It's pretty remarkable, really. The defending National Runners-up from last year have yet to lose a game this season, despite playing a brutal non-conference schedule littered with high-profile opponents. The Wildcats struggled a bit the first two games of SEC play. Then, they bulldozed Missouri in such a way that, if you happened to be at work while watching the game for some reason, you would have had to immediately change the channel. Perfect time to catch them!
The First Platoon
- PG Andrew Harrison (7.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- SG Aaron Harrison (11.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- SF Dominique Hawkins (1.8 PPG, 0.9 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- PF Karl-Anthony Towns (8.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.4 BPG)
- C Willie Cauley-Stein (9.7 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.9 BPG)
First, it bears mentioning that Kentucky doesn't have "starters" and "back-ups" this year, at least not in the traditional sense, but a "first" and "second" platoon. When you have this much talent, it makes sense. The first platoon is mainly all experienced players, with the exception of Towns. That exception is made because the guy is a monster in the post. A sure-fire lottery pick in this year's NBA draft, Towns can score (51.6% FG%, 74.5% FT%) and rebound well, but it's his defense that makes him so good (70.1 DRtg). Sticking with the ridiculous front court, Cauley-Stein has become an old-timer in Lexington, as this will be his third year with the team. Cauley-Stein is a better scorer around the basket than Towns (57.4% FG%), but he isn't as good of a shooter (62.0% FT%, doesn't shoot threes like Towns can). Defensively and on the boards, he's just as much of a beast. With a ridiculous defensive rating of 68.9, it's a wonder how anybody scores any points in the paint.
In the back court, the Wildcats are led by the super twins, the Harrison brothers. Andrew has blossomed into a strong point guard. He can pass the ball as well as anybody in the conference, is a member of the two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio club, and plays very good defense (82.5 DRtg). Aaron, who's best known for his incredible game winning shots against Michigan and Wisconsin in last year's NCAA Tournament, is the high-volume shooter of the team, averaging over eleven shots per game. Think of him as the Kobe Bryant of the team, with Towns and Cauley-Stein playing the roles of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum during the Lakers back-to-back NBA Championships in 2009-2010. The thing is though, neither Harrison is an overwhelmingly good shooter by any stretch (Andrew: 33.7% FG%, 32.4 % 3P%, 74.6% FT%; Aaron: 36.7% FG%, 31.6% 3P%, 73.7% FT%). However, when your team is 5th in the country in RPG, it's nice to have a guy like Aaron who has the ability to knock down big shots, because even when he isn't on, Kentucky's still got a good chance of retaining possession. Hawkins is a sophomore who got his first meaningful start against Missouri, as Calipari was looking to shake things up after the first couple of conference games, and it clearly helped. He isn't going to be a star, but his experience and defensive ability (84.4 DRtg) make him kind of the "glue guy" for the team.
- PG Tyler Ulis (5.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- SG Devin Booker (10.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- SF Trey Lyles (7.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.6 APG)
- PF Marcus Lee (2.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
- C Dakari Johnson (8.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 BPG)
Scary thought: Kentucky's second platoon might be better than their first. Well, more talented anyway. Ulis and Booker have been awesome coming off the bench. Ulis shoots exactly 45.2% from both the field and from three, which is crazy good consistency, 80.0% from the free throw line, and is already one of the best ball-handlers in the country with a nearly FOUR-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. Booker is a lights-out sharpshooter (50.0% FG%, 50.8% 3P%, 84.6% FT%). Alabama would do well to stay all over Booker while he is in the game.
Lyles is yet another stud freshman with a ton of potential. He is a very good rebounder from the wing and plays great defense (76.2 DRtg). He's not as good of a shooter as the two guards (47.0% FG%, 16.7% 3P%, 66.7% FT%), but he makes up for it with his ability to score around the basket (56.6% 2P%). Lee is still struggling to recapture the magic he had during last season's tournament run, when he came from nowhere to become an impact player for the Cats. However, this is still a 6'9, lengthy, athletic post player that's good enough for Kentucky. His 57.1% from the field isn't too shabby; however, shooting 26.7% from the free throw line is absolutely atrocious. Finally, Kentucky's playing rotation is rounded out with your average, 7'0 future NBA player in Dakari Johnson. Johnson is shooting 56.0% from the field and dominating on the defensive side of the court (72.1 DRtg).
What to Watch For
- The Best in College Basketball. Anything can happen on any given night in college basketball, and it's nearly impossible to go undefeated, so don't just expect Alabama to roll over for these guys. But, my goodness, this Kentucky team. As a fan, you can't help but enjoy watching these guys play, especially because of how stunningly unselfish they are.
- Intensity. Tuscaloosa ought to be rocking on Saturday, and the team will be filled to the brim with excitement and enthusiasm. This is what it's like when Alabama football visits an opposing stadium, and Crimson Tide fans need to show up and get loud for the home team. Alabama has been a pretty unbeatable team at home under Anthony Grant, and even Calipari's loaded Kentucky teams have struggled in Tuscaloosa over the years. In fact, Alabama has won two in a row at home versus Kentucky. If you can't get excited for this, then you just aren't a basketball fan.
Three Keys to Victory
- Keep it Competitive on the Boards. Kentucky's obviously a fantastic team all the way around, but the front court is where they really dominate. The Wildcats are 5th in the country in RPG, and they go three-deep with seven-footers (Cauley-Stein, Towns, and Johnson). They are extremely good at grabbing rebounds on the offensive end, so Jimmie Taylor, Michael Kessens, Shannon Hale, etc. will have to get good positioning and box these guys out. They will have to do a whole lot better than they did against South Carolina, because Michael Carrera, as scrappy as he is, is a dwarf compared to these guys. Kentucky will miss some shots, the Tide absolutely can not afford to let them get many second opportunities.
- Force Jump Shots. There is a formula to beating Calipari's incredibly athletic, outstandingly gifted basketball teams. At the top of the list is that you HAVE to stop the dribble penetration. If Kentucky is blowing past your defenders or getting the ball into the post, you are toast. Kentucky doesn't shoot jump shots any better than other good teams do, sitting at 81st in the country in FG%, 161st in 3P%, and 195th in FT%. Successful teams make the Wildcats earn it. Anthony Grant, for all the criticism he has received about developing an offensive game-plan, has to be given credit for how well he has executed this major key in previous match-ups with Kentucky. Grant-led Alabama teams have held Kentucky to only 66.3 PPG in seven total match-ups and exactly 55.0 PPG in the last two meetings.
- Make Every Shot Count. So it's possible to stop Kentucky from scoring a ton of points, but the main question is whether or not Alabama can score on them. Kentucky is absolutely terrifying on defense. They are 1st in blocks, 1st in opponent FG%, 3rd in opponent 3P%, 1st in opponent assists allowed, 1st in PPG allowed, and 1st in defensive rating. Teams can not score with any kind of consistency against this team, they are too good. Good luck trying to do anything inside, because their combination of size and speed is unreal. It's pretty simple, if somebody happens to get an open look, they have to make it count. Alabama isn't exactly the best at doing this, but they will have to be pretty darn good on Saturday if they want to pull off the stunning upset.
Kentucky is the undefeated, undisputed #1 team in the country for a reason. They are incredibly good. However, as Texas A&M and Ole Miss showed everyone last week, that doesn't mean they are unbeatable. Coleman Coliseum, where Kentucky has dropped two games in a row, will be absolutely electrifying on Saturday.
The game tips-off at 3:00 PM CST and will be televised by ESPN.