After a disheartening loss that brought the Crimson Tide back down to Earth on Saturday, Avery Johnson will have to rally his troops quickly before they take on arguably their toughest test of the season: traveling to Lexington to face the sixteenth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (20-7, 10-4 SEC). The current leader in the conference standings, the Wildcats almost never lose at home, especially in conference play. John Calipari's team is undefeated at Rupp Arena this season, and their last loss at home against an SEC opponent came nearly two years ago, when the Arkansas Razorbacks went into Lexington and beat the 'Cats 71-67 in overtime.
Suffice to say, this isn't exactly the best situation for a bounce-back win for Alabama. It will be even more daunting since Kentucky will be looking for a bounce-back win themselves, after falling to Texas A&M Saturday night. However, nobody really gave Alabama a chance at winning back-to-back games at Florida and LSU last week, so anything is possible. It will certainly take a much better performance than the pedestrian showing the Tide displayed in Tuscaloosa this past weekend to pull off the stunning upset though.
The Last Meeting
Three Keys to Victory
There were a number of reasons why Alabama ended up losing their first meeting with Kentucky back in the early portion of the conference season, but it all started with the first two keys from the last preview. When the Tide forced Kentucky to take jump shots, they had a lot of success on defense. The Wildcats finished 2/9 from behind the arc, and only hit six total shots from outside of the paint. The problem was that Alabama couldn't stop Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress' two-man game, and Poythress and company destroyed the Tide around the rim. On the flip-side of that, Alabama didn't make enough jumpers themselves, finishing 7/24 from three-point land and hitting only one other shot outside of the paint the whole night, a 16-footer from Shannon Hale. Overall, Alabama shot a hideous 34.6% from the field.
The plethora of missed shots also gave way to the largest disparity of the game between the two teams: rebounding. The Wildcats out-rebounded Alabama 43-25, which, in a game where neither team is hitting their shots, is almost always the key differentiator (the Florida game notwithstanding). Alabama isn't a great rebounding team, but it's nearly impossible to overcome that kind of disparity. The Tide simply has to do better.
As far as fouls and free throw shooting were concerned, they ended up being about even. Kentucky had 24 fouls to 'Bama's 23, and the 'Cats hit 19/30 from the line while Alabama knocked down 18/27. Getting any calls in Rupp Arena will be extremely difficult, so the Tide may want to avoid getting into a particularly physical game this time around. Also, if Retin Obasohan could get some help this time, that would be great. Hale, Arthur Edwards, and Justin Coleman shot a combined 5/24 from the floor, which simply won't cut it against a team like Kentucky.
What to Watch For This Time
There have been a number of changes since the Tide hosted Kentucky back on January 9th. For one, Alabama's been playing much more like a real basketball team since, regardless of what happened against Mississippi State. The Tide certainly isn't a juggernaut by any stretch, but the team's confidence is much greater than what it was when the SEC's premier basketball program came to Coleman Coliseum. Hopefully that will translate into some more baskets this time around.
The biggest difference between the game this Tuesday and the previous meeting though will be the absence of a number of key 'Cats. Poythress, who decimated the Tide to the tune of 25 points and 7 rebounds last time, has been out with a knee injury for a few weeks now, and is currently listed as questionable for the game Tuesday. If he's not able to go, Alabama's chances of pulling off the upset will be greatly increased, obviously. Derek Willis, who had really stepped up his level of play in Poythress' absence over the last few weeks, suffered a severely sprained ankle on Saturday night, and it seems unlikely that he will be able to play either. With Skal Labissiere being quite the disappointment this season, the Wildcats could suddenly be looking at a really thin front-court against the Tide. That would do wonders for a team that got abused on the glass and around the rim in the previous meeting. It was an issue for Kentucky on Saturday, as Texas A&M out-rebounded them 41-36.
The Wildcats will be looking for three players in particular to continue to step up their level of play, starting with the true freshman Isaac Humphries, the seven-footer who has been called upon to replace Poythress and Willis. He had a big game on Saturday, but his poorly-timed technical foul might have ultimately cost the 'Cats the game. The other two key players for this game will be Ulis and Jamal Murray, who have both been on-fire for much of the last month. Alabama's guards are going to have to stay on top of both of these guys, because the Tide can't afford to let either one of them get loose.
Despite the tough loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, the Tide's NCAA Tournament chances are hardly gone. Most experts still have Alabama in their projected field as of right now, and as long as Avery Johnson's team can take care of business at home against Auburn and Arkansas, then one more win should get them in. That is especially so if that win comes on the road in Lexington, a place where the Wildcats simply don't lose.
John Calipari's team has some vulnerabilities right now in the front-court though, so a win isn't impossible. Alabama will need to bring their 'A' game if they want to hand Kentucky a rare back-to-back loss. Obasohan will need some more help from the rest of the Tide offense, and the Tide needs to play much better around the basket on both ends.
The game is set to tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.