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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #9 Kentucky

Alabama hosts the SEC's blue-blood in the conference home opener

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Crimson Tide return home after a tough, emotional loss at Ole Miss for the opening home game of SEC play. Their reward? A date with the Kentucky Wildcats, once again ranked in the top ten in the country. On top of that, Kentucky is coming off of a loss against the LSU Tigers on Tuesday night, so they will be looking to get back on track against the Tide Saturday evening. Avery Johnson will certainly have his hands full as he gets his first taste of what it's like to play the pinnacle of SEC basketball. John Calipari's young squad has yet to reach their full potential, having lost three games already this season, but they have an amazingly high ceiling. However, this year's version has looked vulnerable at times. Calipari likes the challenge of developing his young team over the course of the season though, and it should be expected that this will be the best team Alabama plays all year, especially with the extra motivation of having lost their last game. It will take the Tide's best effort to try and pull off this victory.

The Roster

The Starters

  • PG 5'9 Tyler Ulis (14.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.5 SPG)
  • OG 6'3 Isaiah Briscoe (10.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.7 SPG)
  • SG 6'5 Jamal Murray (17.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)
  • WF 6'8 Alex Poythress (9.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
  • C 6'9 Marcus Lee (8.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 0.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 3.4 BPG)
Kentucky's group this season has had a bit of different look than many of their previous units under Calipari. For one thing, this team's offense is run almost entirely from the backcourt. There is not nearly as much length on this team as in the past, especially compared to last season, which also has made them a bit more vulnerable defensively. They also have three starters with a decent amount of experience (Ulis, Poythress, and Lee), which is odd for a program that has become the primary example of the one-and-done rule. Ulis may be the best true point guard in college basketball, as the guy just knows how to run an offense. His nearly 3 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio has helped the Wildcats in a major way, as the rest of the team doesn't handle the ball nearly as well. His shooting leaves a bit to be desired (39.7% FG%, 29.2% 3P%), but he is excellent from the free throw line (86.9%). Murray is the high-volume scorer for Kentucky this season, and the 'Cats have depended on him to knock down shots a number of times this year (41.4% FG%, 38.3% 3P%, 75.0% FT%). Briscoe has had a rough time transitioning as a shooter at this level (19.0% 3P%, 35.3% FT%), but his raw talent and high motor have made up for it. He still shoots 46.0% from the field, as he is very good at getting past his man and to the rim, and his rebounding and defense (10.0% RB%, 95.0 DRtg, both best among all guards on the team) have been critical for Kentucky's balance.

As mentioned, this team has been a bit different than most of Calipari's Kentucky teams of the past. This stark contrast can be most easily seen in the frontcourt, where the Wildcats are simply not as big or dominant as they've been in recent years. There is no stud one-and-done freshman (though Skal Labissiere may develop into that) that resembles the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis, or Demarcus Cousins. There isn't even a seven-footer on the roster, the horror! Instead, Poythress, a rare senior for this program, has been asked to play a lot more in the post than he has for most of his career in Lexington. His ability to rebound (16.7% RB%) and defend (94.4 DRtg) have been vital for this team. Also, he can still play well on the wing, as he is a natural slasher (57.8% FG%). Lee has also had to step up, as Labissiere's struggles have cleared the way for Lee to take over the starting role at center. Lee has responded by being an absolute hoss protecting the rim. He's been by far the best rebounder and defender on the team, and he's scoring at a 65.0% clip.

The Bench
  • G 6'6 Charles Matthews (3.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.7 SPG)
  • G 6'0 Dominique Hawkins (2.5 PPG, 0.7 RPG, 0.5 APG)
  • F 6'9 Derek Willis (5.6 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.6 SPG)
  • C 6'11 Skal Labissiere (8.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG)
Kentucky isn't usually a super deep team, and that hasn't changed this season. Calipari likes to run his starting five and Labissiere 20.0+ MPG, and the rest are mostly in for relief. Hawkins and Matthews both provide decent options in the backcourt, though Matthews is really the guy to keep an eye on. He's a true freshman, so he will likely continue to get better over the course of the year, which Kentucky will need if they want to make another deep tournament run. Willis has been a solid back-up for Poythress and Lee in the post, as his defense (97.0 DRtg) is better than average and his offense is actually pretty darn good (123.8 ORtg). Labissiere is the key to this team though. He's had a rough transition from playing ball in Haiti to playing major college basketball, but his development will be the real key to Kentucky's season. If he can reach his potential, the 'Cats will be tough to beat.

What to Watch For

  • The Home Crowd. The Kentucky game is usually one of the few games that packs out Coleman Coliseum every year, but with the football team on the way to Glendale for the National Championship and students still trickling back in from Winter break, it will be interesting to see what kind of atmosphere will be in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. This is important, because the future of the program may ride on what kind of presence is felt during this game. Avery Johnson wants to be at a place where people care, and Alabama fans need to show their support for him in this game. The way Johnson's been coaching this team, he will likely get a few calls this offseason inquiring about his availability. Also, there are going to be a large number of important recruits on campus for this game, and Tide fans need to show them that Tuscaloosa can show up and support the basketball team.
  • The Quick Turn-Around. Every year, each SEC team has to deal with the quick Thursday-Saturday turn-around during conference play. Well, unfortunately for Alabama, that quick turn-around came immediately out of the gates, and against Kentucky to boot. Will Alabama have drawn up a strong gameplan in time? Will they be able to execute it?

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Force Jump Shots. Kentucky is obviously an extremely talented team, but they've actually not been very efficient shooting the ball. Ulis isn't a great shooter, and Briscoe has really struggled in that area of his game. The Tide can't allow Kentucky to get open looks around the rim, because the Wildcats will eat that up all day. Forcing perimeter shots would be the optimal outcome, as Kentucky ranks 280th in the country at 31.6% from three-point land. Murray is the one guy who can really damage Alabama in this regard.
  2. Make Jump Shots. On the opposite end, Alabama will really need a good day shooting the ball in order to pull off the upset. Kentucky's still really good defending around the basket, as Lee is particular is quite a presence in the post. As such, it's not a great idea to try and take the ball to the rim much. Arthur Edwards has become a steady spot-up shooter, and the rest of the team needs to get him the ball in rhythm. Some other guys need to step up in this area as well though. Justin Coleman and Shannon Hale both have the ability to get hot from outside; the Tide will need at least one of them to.
  3. Make it Ugly. Alabama doesn't have superior depth, but the Tide might have a slight edge if there are a number of fouls called and the bench gets heavily involved. Kentucky really doesn't have anyone who can run the point well outside of Ulis, and LSU showed that if Poythress and Lee get in foul trouble this Kentucky team becomes vulnerable defensively. On top of that, Kentucky is only shooting 65.1% from the free throw line this year, which is 293rd in the country. Just don't send Ulis to the line.
Kentucky is, once again, the team to beat in the SEC. However, this year's version is still finding their way. Alabama has a chance, but they will likely need one of their best efforts of the season if they hope to spring the upset. It will hopefully be a raucous scene in Coleman Coliseum Saturday night, and hopefully Avery Johnson can continue to defy the odds by putting this group in the best position to win. The start of SEC play is going to be tough on the Tide, but a stunning win on Saturday could be what this team needs to help grind through it.

The game tips-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.