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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #14 Kentucky

The Tide head north to Lexington looking for a statement win

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Is there a better way to follow-up an uneven roller-coaster ride of a performance than with a dominant start-to-finish beat-down of a conference rival in the following game? How about further verifying the peaks of both performances with a statement victory on the road against the conference’s bread-winner? It would be a good place to start, that’s for sure.

It’s also exactly what Alabama (8-6, 1-1 SEC, Kenpom: 50, NET: 55) will attempt to do this Saturday as they head to historic Rupp Arena to take on the 14th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (11-3, 2-0 SEC, Kenpom: 18, NET: 26). John Calipari’s club is once again one of the teams to beat in the SEC, though the make-up of this year’s roster is a bit different than what we have become accustomed to when taking on Cal’s teams over the years.

Nate Oats is still searching for his first statement win in Crimson and White. A Q1 win in Rupp Arena would fit that bill nicely. Can Alabama stun the Wildcats for a second year in a row?

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’3 Ashton Hagans (12.9 PPG, 7.1 APG, 3.9 RPG, 2.1 SPG)

GUARD 6’3 Tyrese Maxey (14.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.4 APG)

WING 6’7 Keion Brooks Jr. (5.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG)

POST 6’10 E.J. Montgomery (7.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.0 BPG)

POST 6’11 Nick Richards (13.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.1 BPG)

As mentioned, this is a much different team than the rest of the conference is accustomed to seeing from Kentucky. They only start two true freshmen, and only four of their nine players in the usual rotation are first year players. Furthermore, this particular crop of freshmen aren’t as highly touted as most of Calipari’s classes, and even then, 34 of them are under performing relative to their expectations. Maxey is the lone exception, as he’s been arguably Kentucky’s best offensive player this season (42.5%/27.9%/80.3%; 19.8% AST%; 108.4 ORtg).

The two primary drivers for Kentucky’s 2020 success thus far have been sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans and junior center Nick Richards. Hagans isn’t known as a shooter (30.0% 3P%), but he is as dangerous as anybody in the conference off of the dribble (44.6% FG%, 83.1% FT%, 40.2% AST%), and he brings it on the defensive end of the court as well (4.7% STL%, 88.6 DRtg). Richards is similar in his role in the post. He’s not the most polished scorer in the game, but he is effective with his size (68.5% FG%). His best attributes though are his rebounding (15.5% REB%) and his ability to defend the basket (8.6% BLK%, 88.5 DRtg). Both of these guys really defend. Montgomery gives Kentucky great size in the post.

The Bench

GUARD 6’3 Immanuel Quickley (12.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.9 SPG)

WING 6’6 Kahlil Whitney (4.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG)

WING 6’6 Johnny Zuzang (1.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG)

POST 6’9 Nate Sestina (7.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.4 APG)

Again, note the lack of production from freshmen Whitney and Zuzang. Quickley has improved significantly from his freshman campaign a year ago, as he’s been as steady of a scorer as anyone on the team, and he boasts one of the best free throw percentages in the country (41.2%/37.5%/94.1%). Sestina is a graduate transfer from Bucknell, where he lead the Bison in rebounding and was second on the team in scoring a season ago. He’s seen his minutes tick up in recent weeks, as his ability to knock down jumpers (44.6%/36.0%/84.6%) both stretches the defense out and gives them another big man on the court for rebounding purposes. When Kentucky plays big, it’s really tough to get much off of the glass.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Hang Tough on the Glass. Speaking of rebounding, it’s imperative that Alabama keep the margin somewhat respectable against these guys. I said earlier this week that rebounding would loom large and go a long way in determining the outcome of both of the Tide’s match-ups this week. Well, consider the effort against Mississippi State and Reggie Perry on Wednesday a rollicking success. The Tide didn’t just hang tough with State, they actually out-rebounded the SEC’s leader in rebounding margin on their way to a decisive victory. If they can put together another effort like that, it will neutralize the one area that, on paper, Kentucky has a large advantage.
  2. Make it Rain from Downtown. The area that Alabama, on paper, has the largest advantage is the three-point line. Kentucky has not shot the ball well this year, and they’ve been dreadful from the perimeter (30.1%). Meanwhile, the Tide have been excellent, as they are now up to 40th in the country at 37.2%. And when Alabama has a few different guys going, they really let it fly. Considering Kentucky’s size and defensive presence in the painted area, it would behoove the Tide to get it going from outside.
  3. Free Throws. As bad as Kentucky has been shooting the ball in-play, they have been fantastic from the free throw line. They are currently 10th in the country, making 78.2% of their freebies. ‘Bama has been solid this year (70.2%), but there have definitely been a few times that missed free throws have cost the Tide (Penn and Florida immediately come to mind). Considering this game is in Lexington, I’d expect the whistle to be quick when the ‘Cats have the ball, so Alabama has to be disciplined on defense. Force these guys to take jumpers and keep them out of the lane without fouling. It will be a tall task.

This is another huge opportunity for Nate Oats and his inaugural Crimson Tide team. The guys have been playing much better basketball for about a month now, having only lost in Double OT at Florida last Saturday in a game that they really should have won. The team seems to be exuding a cool confidence that we haven’t seen in a long time from Tide Hoops. This team is dangerous and peaking at the right time.

Kentucky doesn’t have the same raw talent that they normally do (only one player on the roster appears to be looking at a lottery-pick position in the NBA Draft this summer), but they make up for it in experience, defense, and their ability to knock down free throws. This is still one of the best teams in the conference and a contender for a protected seed come March. This is a massive opportunity for Alabama to announce themselves as legitimate tournament contenders.

The game will tip-off at 11:00 AM CST and will be televised on ESPN.