2021 has been absolutely fantastic for fans of the University of Alabama. Tonight, the Alabama Crimson Tide (9-3, 4-0 SEC) basketball team will try to keep things rolling for the Capstone as they travel to Lexington, Kentucky for a showdown with the Wildcats (4-6, 3-0 SEC). For the second Tuesday in a row, the Tide will be squaring off with a fellow undefeated-in-conference opponent for sole possession of first place in the SEC. Nate Oats has set out to change the culture of Alabama basketball with this year’s squad, and so far this calendar year, he’s met every mark. Pull off a road win against an elite opponent? Check. Follow it up by not rendering it useless with a loss in the very next game? Check. Win in Auburn? Check.
Next on the list is a pair of lofty goals: winning on the road in Lexington and taking sole possession of first place in the conference with nearly a third of the conference slate already played. The good news is, if there was ever a year to accomplish these two feats, it would be 2021.
This might be John Calipari’s weakest team since he’s been at Kentucky. The Wildcats sport a losing record overall, with losses to the likes of Richmond, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech. It’s not like they’ve only lost to fellow Blue Bloods. Outside of SEC play, Kentucky’s only win came against Morehead State in the November opener. However, as Calipari’s ‘Cats seem to do, they’ve hit their stride just in time for conference play. Calipari is famous for his annual “tweak” that takes his team to the next level, and it seems like he may have gone to the lab for this year’s version a bit earlier than usual, due to the dire 1-6 start.
So, while this may not be anywhere close to the challenge the Tide usually expects to take on in Rupp Arena, it certainly won’t be easy.
POINT 6’3 Davion Mintz (10.3 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 Devin Askew (7.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG)
WING 6’7 Brandon “B.J.” Boston (12.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.5 SPG)
POST 6’9 Lance Ware (1.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
POST 7’0 Olivier Sarr (11.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.4 BPG)
Calipari has really been tweaking the starting line-up all season, as it’s taken him a great deal of time to determine how to best utilize his rotation. Kentucky is always one of the youngest teams in the country, but this year that is especially true. Only one player from last year’s rotation returned this season (Keion Brooks), and he just made his season debut on Saturday. Davion Mintz and Olivier Sarr both transferred in from Creighton and Wake Forest, respectively, but everyone else in the rotation is a true freshman, with the exception of Jacob Toppin, a transfer from Rhode Island and brother of the 2020 Naismith Award winner, Obi. That’s a ton of roster turnover.
It’s no surprise that it’s taken this team some time to gel. Only Sarr and unanimous top-5 2020 recruit, B.J. Boston, have started every game this season. Boston headlined this year’s rendition of Calipari’s one-and-done brigade, but he has struggled at the collegiate level thus far (35.9%/17.1%/81.1%; sub 10% in both REB% and AST%). Sarr has been a solid, yet unspectacular, presence in the post, scoring at a decent clip (49.4%/40.0%/71.8%) and providing sound numbers on the glass (11.7% REB%) and in defending the rim (5.6% BLK%; 98.5 DRtg).
Cal has gone back-and-forth on who to play at point guard between Mintz and former five-star, Devin Askew, so it appears he’s just decided to play both. Their numbers have been eerily similar (Mintz: 40.5%/36.2%/64.3%; 19.9% AST%; 100.5 DRtg; Askew: 39.7%/36.4%/82.6%; 17.3% AST%; 101.2 DRtg), so it’s not surprising he’s been swapping them out so much. One of Calipari’s signature “tweaks” this season has been inserting “lowly” four-star Lance Ware into the starting line-up the previous few games. He’s not been a super productive player, but his size and interior presence has been a nice addition to the starting unit, and it’s allowed fellow blue-chip freshman Isaiah Jackson the opportunity to spell Sarr more.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’6 Dontaie Allen (7.1 PPG, 1.9 RPG)
WING 6’6 Cam’Ron Fletcher (2.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
WING 6’7 Terrence Clarke (10.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.8 SPG)
WING 6’7 Keion Brooks (12 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists in his debut against Florida)
WING 6’9 Jacob Toppin (4.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG)
POST 6’10 Isaiah Jackson (5.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 2.8 BPG)
It’s wild that a team with a bench that has this many answers can have so many questions. Of course, not all of these options have been available to Calipari all season. I already mentioned how the lone returner, Brooks, finally made his season debut this past weekend (where he looked really good, by the way), but on top of that, two blue-chip recruits, Fletcher and Clarke, have also missed a lot of time. It’s unclear whether either will be available tonight, though. Clarke hurt his ankle a couple of weeks ago, and Fletcher has apparently had some off-the-court issues, considering Calipari recently asked that he “step away” from the game for a little bit to reflect on what he really wants to do with his life.
Clarke had been struggling as much as Boston had though (43.1%/22.7%/47.1%; 5.4% REB%; 103.5 DRtg), and Fletcher wasn’t a highly effective player, averaging only 8.7 MPG. Still, both of them were highly rated recruits, and Clarke was considered a one-and-done prospect, so I’m sure Kentucky would love to get them back on the court.
Dontaie Allen’s recent emergence and Isaiah Jackson’s acceptance of his new bench role have been part of the 2021 “tweak”. Allen hadn’t been playing much because shooting threes is about the only thing he brings to the table (47.1%/52.0%/83.3%), but for a team that was as desperate as Kentucky and its 73rd rated Offensive Efficiency had been for perimeter scoring, his presence in the rotation is much needed. Jackson’s name should sound familiar to Alabama fans, as Nate Oats recruited the big five-star heavily last year. He’s honestly been the only freshman who has lived up to his expectations in his first year. His scoring hasn’t exactly been electric (44.0%/0.0%/59.1%), but his rebounding (19.1% REB%) and shot blocking (14.1% BLK%) have been elite. Alabama would kill to have him coming off the bench in Crimson and White.
Three Keys to Victory
- Defensive Rebounding. This key will remain until the morale improves. In all seriousness, this is the one area Alabama continues to struggle in, even against Auburn this past Saturday. I just mentioned Isaiah Jackson’s rebounding prowess, but this whole team can rebound the ball well, as they are 48th in the country in offensive rebounding at 12.1 per game. Kentucky is the one team Alabama consistently gets dominated on the glass by, what with the whole elite talent and size combo they’ve got going on in Lexington. That’s usually heavily correlated to the Tide losing its match-ups with the Wildcats.
- Control the Pace. Alabama will obviously want to get out in transition and run the court against the ‘Cats, especially since they are 17th in the country in Defensive Efficiency. But, the Tide will also want to slow Kentucky’s up-tempo looks as well. With the Wildcats struggling as much as they have to run half-court offense and knock down shots, the Tide doesn’t want to do what Florida did and let the ‘Cats get up-and-down the court for easy looks at the basket.
- Go Up Strong. I lied a minute ago when I said the Tide has one area it continues to struggle in; the other area of weakness for Alabama is one of the simplest things in the sport: finishing at the rim. With a team as big and physical as Kentucky is, and with Jahvon Quinerly sitting out another game for his undisclosed medical condition, Alabama really needs everyone to make their lay-ups tonight. Don’t let Jackson and company swat everything off of the backboard so that they can get out and running in the open court. Alabama has too many talented, long players to keep missing this many easy finishes at the rim. Go up strong and dunk the ball. Make them foul you.
Another game, another major opportunity for Tide Hoops to extend its current lead in the conference standings and continue building its resume for March. Because of the Wildcats horrible start to the season, a win in Lexington won’t have the same cache as usual. But with the ‘Cats starting to get a bit healthier and John Calipari making some of his patented tweaks, Kentucky is definitely turning the corner just in time for the Tide to play them twice in two weeks. It will take another strong performance from Alabama to come away from Rupp Arena with its unblemished conference record intact.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.