Oh, how things can change. As Alabama (14-9, 7-4 SEC) traveled to Columbia, South Carolina on Tuesday, most figured they would be returning home with a third straight loss and all momentum from the first half of conference play completely gone. Instead, Avery Johnson once again succeeded where his predecessors had failed, stunning the 19th-ranked Gamecocks and securing Alabama’s first road victory over a ranked opponent since 2004 (yes, it’s been a long time coming). The mental toughness and grit that this young Alabama team displayed that night was a sight to behold, as the Tide overcame a large blown lead in regulation and a significant 2OT deficit to outlast the Gamecocks in 4OT. Oh yeah, that was with ‘Bama’s two best players, Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram, sitting the entire overtime period after fouling out.
It was a massive win; one that can catapult a team to much loftier future endeavors. It’s fitting that Alabama’s next game just so happens to represent such a challenge: beating the Kentucky Wildcats (19-5, 9-2 SEC).
By now everyone knows the drill when it comes to John Calipari’s ‘Cats. They are incredibly young and amazingly gifted. They are the kings of the conference in hoops and are once again contenders for the national championship. However, this year’s team has seen some recent struggles. They’ve lost three out of their last five games, with a pair of home wins over Georgia and LSU being the exception (and it took an incredible buzzer-beating shot to avoid grabbing an “L” against the Bulldogs). They are still the team to beat in the SEC, but they are most certainly struggling.
- PG 6’3 De’Aaron Fox (16.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.6 SPG)
- OG 6’3 Isaiah Briscoe (14.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.4 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- SG 6’3 Malik Monk (21.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- PF 6’9 Wenyen Gabriel (6.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 BPG)
- C 6’10 Edrice “Bam” Adebayo (12.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.6 BPG)
Freshman, sophomore, freshman, freshman, freshman: yeah, this is a Calipari-coached Kentucky team. One major difference in this year’s version of the Wildcats is that they are actually driven by their guards, and not by amazing post players such as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Kentucky has a trio of potential lottery picks in the back-court, led by Sindarius Thornwell’s main competition for SEC Player of the Year: Malik Monk. He is an elite-level scorer (48.9% FG%, 41.6% 3P%, 82.5% FT%, 124.0 ORtg) and an amazing talent with the basketball. He makes the game look easy. However, it doesn’t seem like he cares much about crashing the boards (3.8% RB%), and he’s a below average defender (101.3 DRtg). But the man can score the basketball in a variety of ways and will be a top-5 draft pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
Fox has been an explosive force at point guard, as he can drive with the best of them (48.0% FG%, 53.6% 2P%) and has been a great creator for others without turning the ball over much himself (over 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio). He’s not much of a shooter though, and does next-to-nothing from long-range (18.2% 3P%). ‘Bama needs to keep him out of the lane and out on the perimeter. Briscoe is the ‘veteran’ of the bunch, and probably the most balanced. He can score (47.2% FG%, 35.0% 3P%, 71.4% FT%), assist (22.0% A%), and rebound effectively.
In the post, Gabriel and Adebayo have failed to live up to the high standard of dominant front-court Kentucky players of the past, but they are still very talented players. Gabriel has the ability to play out on the perimeter a bit (34.7% 3P%), which is why his 47.0% FG% doesn’t look great for a big. Adebayo is scoring at a more conventional 60.6% clip. Both are solid defenders and can clean up on the glass, but not like some of the greats that have come before them. In other words, these two can play, but don’t expect Alabama to lay down in the post like the Tide have often done against Calipari’s teams.
- G 6’0 Dominique Hawkins (3.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 2.0 APG)
- G 6’4 Mychal Mulder (6.2 PPG, 1.7 RPG)
- F 6’9 Derek Willis (7.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.9 BPG)
- C 7’0 Isaac Humphries (3.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
The Wildcats don’t have an incredibly deep bench, but they’ve got some good quality. Hawkins and Mulder are seniors with tons of needed experience, and Mulder has been a nice scoring option off of the bench (45.3% FG%, 39.1% 3P%). Mulder is 9/9 from the free throw line on the year, which demonstrates how efficient he is, but also how little he actually impacts the game.
Willis is the rare post playing 6th-man. His ability to stretch the court (37.0% 3P%) makes him a match-up nightmare, especially considering he is still scoring at a 64.2% clip from the interior. Additionally, there isn’t any drop-off from the two starters defensively (95.6 DRtg) or on the glass (12.2% RB%). Humphries is averaging less than 10.0 MPG, but he’s rebounding at an astounding 20.2% rate, and he’s been the best defender on the team statistically (93.0 DRtg). Granted, he likely gets most of his minutes against lesser opponents.
Three Keys to Victory
- Prevent Dribble Penetration. Kentucky makes their living on offense by getting their guards into the lane. From there they either draw-and-dump to their bigs, kick it to the wing for an open three, or take it to the rim themselves. And they like to take it themselves. All of their guards can drive and finish, and even when they don’t, they get to the free throw line a ton (10th in the country in free throw attempts). ‘Bama’s guards will really need to utilize their length and lateral quickness in this game, because the Tide can’t afford to let Fox and Monk penetrate the defense all day.
- Win the Battle of the Boards. In years past, Kentucky has absolutely throttled Alabama on the glass. It has been the number one reason why the Tide simply haven’t been able to measure up with this program recently. However, the Tide are currently 2nd in the SEC in rebounds, and with Donta Hall and Bola Olaniyan hitting the glass and the overall length of the Alabama roster, they should have a good chance to finally beat the ‘Cats in this area. Just keeping it close will give Alabama a shot.
- Finish Plays on Offense. The main reason for Kentucky’s recent struggles has been how poorly they have defended. Tennessee, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, and LSU all dropped 79+ on the Wildcats. Their guards don’t defend well, their bigs aren’t what they used to be, and there is a lack of depth that’s starting to rear its head as conference play grinds on. The Crimson Tide will have their looks, but they’ve got to be able to finish them.
It’s probably asking too much of Alabama to pull off another massive win over a ranked opponent this week, but if there was ever a time to beat Kentucky, this may be it. The Wildcats have been really bad on the defensive end lately, and Alabama can defend anyone.
The game will tip-off at noon for a premier match-up on CBS.