It has been a season of ups and downs so far for the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-9, 8-5 SEC), but following their best back-to-back performances of the year, Avery Johnson's club is hoping that they are riding one last high all the way through the finish line of the 2017-18 season. The mercurial Tide have been mostly on an upward trend for the past month or so now, but each peak of a major win has been met with a slight valley of an ugly loss to a lesser opponent. That was not the case this week, as Alabama took care of business in convincing fashion against the LSU Tigers 80-65 after demolishing the 15th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers 78-50 the game prior. It was inarguably Alabama's best consecutive performances of the season, with the Tide matching suffocating defense with explosive, team-oriented offense. The Tide looks to be peaking at the right time.
The Kentucky Wildcats (17-9, 6-7 SEC) are not peaking right now. In fact, they are cratering. After falling to Auburn on the road on Wednesday night, the 'Cats have now lost 4 straight conference games, tied for the 2nd-worst SEC losing streak in the program's storied history. While they are still in no danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, they sure don't look much like a team that will do anything when they get there. When the Wildcats clinched the SEC's first victory over the Big 12 in the Big 12/SEC Challenge a few weeks back by coming from behind to beat a very good West Virginia team on the road, it looked like they had finally turned the corner. Since then however, Kentucky is 1-4 with the lone victory coming at home against the lowly Vanderbilt Commodores in a game they very nearly still lost.
Something's not right with John Calipari's team this season. With that being said, they are still immensely talented, and they should be desperate to get back up off the mat at home and put an end to this losing streak. That combination will be a lot for Alabama to overcome on Saturday.
- POINT 6'6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (12.9 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.7 RPG, 1.7 SPG)
- GUARD 6'5 Hamidou Diallo (11.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- WING 6'7 P.J. Washington (10.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
- WING 6'9 Kevin Knox (15.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- POST 6'11 Nick Richards (6.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
Honestly, Kentucky just picked a terrible year to have arguably their worst roster of the Calipari era. Think about the kind of players Kentucky has churned out over the years: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willie Caulie-Stein, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, James Young, the Harrison Twins, Trey Lyles, Karl Anthony-Towns, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, etc. The only guy on the current roster that belongs on that list is Knox. This wasn't really a huge surprise either. Despite almost all of this year's guys being five-star recruits themselves, none of them came in with the kind of expectations that most of those other listed players did.
On top of that, Kentucky lost damn near every significant contributor from last season's Elite Eight team, not just the one-and-done guys. The Wildcats are usually young, but they've never had to start five true freshmen with nothing but underclassmen in the entire rotation. That is incredibly young. Alabama looks like a seasoned group of grizzled veterans in comparison.
Regardless, this is the team they have. It's not like they are anything to scoff at though. Again, Knox is a legitimate stud on offense (45.4%/35.5%/75.2%), capable of scoring on every level. However, his defense isn't anything special (101.9 DRtg), and he doesn't rebound incredibly well for a 6'9 stretch four (9.3% REB%). Those two areas of his game need improvement, and they are what separates him from the likes of other Kentucky greats who have manned the post in the past.
At the point, Gilgeous-Alexander has been a strong distributor of the ball (27.1% AST%), but he's had his issues turning the ball over as well (19.1% TO%). However, he's a rare 6'6 point guard who can slash as well as most wings, and he's got a decent jumper to complement his driving ability (48.4%/35.5%/79.6%). Diallo has been a frustrating player for 'Cats fans. Despite his obvious potential, he has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, hasn't shot the ball well (42.5%/30.6%/61.0%), and doesn't add much defensively (102.3 DRtg). Washington has been a prototypical slasher on the wing. He doesn't shoot well but he can get to the rim (48.6%/20.0%/61.9%) and he rebounds at a decent clip (10.6% REB%). Richards is a pretty limited big man. He doesn't have a great skill set but he's scoring at a solid 61.4% rate and shooting 74.6% from the free throw line, which is better than many of his teammates. He is, however, one of the few Wildcats who has been playing above average defense though (97.5 DRtg), and he rebounds at a 17.4% rate.
- GUARD 6'0 Quade Green (9.7 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.9 RPG)
- WING 6'9 Wenyen Gabriel (6.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.1 BPG)
- WING 6'9 Jarred Vanderbilt (4.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.1 APG)
- POST 6'10 Sacha Killeya-Jones (3.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.7 BPG)
Surprise, Kentucky's bench is very young as well. Gabriel is probably the closest thing the Wildcats have to a veteran leader. The long sophomore wing is the only player on the team that contributed to last season's SEC Championship team. A solid defender (97.4 DRtg), Gabriel uses his length to get to the rim (52.2% 2P%) and bang on the boards (12.9% REB%). He's not the most effective shooter though (32.8% 3P%, 56.1% FT%). Green is the lone true back-up guard. He's a decent scorer (44.3%/36.5%/80.5%), but his best attribute is his passing (19.7% AST%). Vanderbilt is by far the best rebounder on the team (25.0% REB%), but his complete lack of an offensive game (32.5%/0.0%/66.7%; 0.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio) limits his minutes significantly. Killeya-Jones is a very similar player as Richards (60.0% FG%, 53.1% FT%, 12.3% REB%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Force Turnovers and Get Down the Floor. Kentucky's biggest issue this season has been the large amount of turnovers. They simply aren't very good at protecting the basketball. Alabama's been playing fantastic defense recently, using their unique size/speed combination to smother opposing offenses. The Tide are also at their best offensively when they can run the floor. Therefore, this is easily the biggest key to the game. If Alabama can turn the Wildcats over and run the court for easy baskets in transition, the Tide will have a really good shot at extending Kentucky's losing streak.
- Battle on the Boards. The Wildcats can still rebound the ball very well. They have great size all the way across the roster. The good news for Alabama is that the Tide do as well. Tomorrow's game will be a war on the glass, and whoever comes out on top in this area will have a big advantage in the game.
- Pack the Paint. Kentucky is shooting 32.9% from beyond the arc this season. That is bad enough to rank 285th in the country. What makes Kentucky especially ineffective in this area is that no one on the team can consistently knock down jumpers. It's not like they are mostly poor across the board with the exception of one or two guards. They are just mediocre at every position when it comes to making jump-shots. Knox is about the only one that has shown the ability to get hot. There is no reason for Alabama to allow entry into the paint in this game. It's not just about denying the post though, as Kentucky does most of their damage by driving to the basket with their bevy of slashers with size. The good news is that is exactly the type of team Alabama is built to contain.
This is a huge game for both teams. For Kentucky, the Wildcats are in desperate need of a win. Again, they are in no danger of missing the NCAA Tournament due to their high RPI and big time non-conference wins, but things are getting dangerously close to this young team just throwing in the towel and calling it a season mentally. For Alabama, the Tide are just about locked into the NCAA Tournament. With only 5 games left in the regular season, one more win pretty much guarantees Alabama's spot in the Big Dance. At 17-9, even a 1-4 finish with a one-and-done SEC Tournament would put the Tide at 18-14 (9-9 SEC). With wins over Auburn, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas A&M, and at Florida, the selection committee isn't leaving this team out.
In other words, a win in Lexington, or anywhere else for that matter, pretty much seals the deal for the Crimson Tide. Can Alabama grab an invite to the NCAA Tournament while extending Kentucky's misery?
The game tips-off at 1:00 PM CST and will be televised on CBS.