As Alabama heads into the steel death trap known as Rupp Arena to take on the the #1 team in all the land, Anthony Grant's seat is on fire. No really, the team needs to bring a fire extinguisher on the bus the rest of the season. Because with a hardy ISL9 engine chugging along and powering their beautiful team wagon, the last thing they need is for there to be a live fire on board. In all seriousness, Grant is in trouble. This has been said, of course, many times over the last two years. Therein lies the problem for Coach Grant. There can only be so many more ugly, close losses before the administration finally realizes that enough is enough. So, good luck in Lexington guys!
(As this is a rematch from the previous game against Kentucky just two weeks ago, the flow of the article will be slightly altered, but still full of everything you need to know.)
btbama's thorough recap
The First Platoon
PG Andrew Harrison (7.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.1 SPG)
SG Aaron Harrison (11.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.3 SPG)
SF Dominique Hawkins (1.9 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 1.1 APG)
PF Karl-Anthony Towns (8.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.5 BPG)
C Willie Cauley-Stein (9.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 1.8 BPG)
From last time:
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. 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). 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.
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 is the high-volume shooter of the team, averaging over eleven shots per game. 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.
Obviously the numbers mentioned aren't exactly the same now, but not much has changed in the two weeks since Alabama last played the Wildcats. A pair of NBA Draft lottery picks makes up the most dominating defensive front court in the country in Towns and Cauley-Stein, who have ridiculous, video game-like defensive ratings at 71.2 and 69.0, respectively. The Harrison twins continue to run the offense well, and the defense they play is still some of the best in the conference. Hawkins has started to become a bit more comfortable with his role in the system, and Kentucky has been even better because of it.
The Second Platoon
PG Tyler Ulis (5.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)
SG Devin Booker (10.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.4 APG)
SF Trey Lyles (7.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.4 APG)
PF Marcus Lee (2.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.1 BPG)
C Dakari Johnson (8.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 BPG)
I made the statement that Kentucky's second platoon may be even more talented than the first, and that may still be true:
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%).
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).
As Alabama learned the hard way, Ulis and Booker are the real deal. Booker is a fantastic scorer, as he can masterfully caress the net from long range (50% 3P% on the year, 3/6 from three against the Tide in Tuscaloosa). Ulis is an artist with the basketball, as he creates so many types of looks for the Cats; these two guards play so well together. Lyles has almost become underrated, as the fellow blue-chip freshman doesn't make as many highlights with the ball. However, his physical play, strong defense, and ability to crash the boards makes him so indispensable for this unit. Lee and Johnson have continued the theme of total domination in the post defensively, much to big blue nation's pleasure.
Three Keys to Victory
Here are the keys from last game:
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. 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.
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 cannot 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.
The Cats out-rebounded Alabama 30-21 in their first meeting, which, to be honest, isn't as bad as it could have been. If the Crimson Tide can narrow that margin to four or five rebounds, it would have to be considered a success when playing a team that is so big and so good on the boards. Key #2 is what really busted the previous game wide-open. Alabama did a good job of forcing jump shots, but Kentucky was just on-fire, especially early. John Calipari's team went 23/46 from the field, 8/17 from three, and, for good measure, 16/18 from the free throw line. If the Wildcats are hitting shots like that, nobody is beating them. It's really that simple.
As good as Kentucky was shooting the ball, Alabama did a decent job of hanging with them in that regard, at least inside of the arc. However, with the Wildcats holding a sizable lead throughout the entirety of the contest, the Crimson Tide got suckered into taking too many threes. If you've watched Alabama this year, you know that isn't a good sign. Sure enough, Alabama went 5/18 from three. Scoring on Kentucky is hard enough as it is, and they don't give up offensive rebounds. Alabama basically wasted 13 possessions by throwing up low percentage shots. That may be a little harsh, but unless someone is actually in rhythm, it would be wise for Alabama not to keep jacking up perimeter shots.
If there were ever a time for a needed, stunning signature victory, this is it. Alabama's hopes for a return to the NCAA Tournament are fading fast, as the team is currently looking at a 4 or a 5 seed in the NIT. Anthony Grant could use a win over Calipari's group in the worst possible way.
The game will tip at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.