Another Saturday, another massive challenge for the 25th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (17-9, 7-6 SEC, NET: 22; Kenpom: 19), as Nate Oats’ bunch heads to Lexington, Kentucky to historic Rupp Arena - where they will be met by an angry, top-five Kentucky Wildcats (21-5, 10-3 SEC; NET: 3; Kenpom: 3) team. John Calipari’s group is coming off of their worst loss of the season, a 76-63 beating in Knoxville at the hands of the hated Vols. Needless to say, Alabama will be catching the ‘Cats’ best effort.
However, the Tide might not be catching the Wildcats’ best talent. Kentucky has been dealing with on-and-off injuries all season long, especially with guards Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington. Washington only played about ten minutes of that game against Tennessee - which Calipari later admitted was probably ten minutes too many - and Wheeler seemed to have hurt his wrist late in the contest. It is yet to be determined whether either will give it a go Saturday. Moreover, Calipari was quoted earlier today as saying there are two or three guys who may not be able to play in Saturday’s game.
Either way, Alabama will obviously need to bring its ‘A’-Game for a road trip against a top-five team. When healthy, Kentucky is as good as anybody in college basketball. Even when they are banged up, the Wildcats are still a stout group full of talent and experience. And they usually just sub in five-star talent whenever someone misses time. The Tide should know that as much as anyone does, as Alabama will be looking to avenge a 66-55 loss in Tuscaloosa just two weeks ago.
Can the Tide pull off a rare, second consecutive win in Rupp?
POINT 5’10 Sahvir Wheeler (9.6 PPG, 7.1 APG, 2.2 RPG, 96.9 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 TyTy Washington (12.4 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.4 RPG, 94.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Kellan Grady (11.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.1 APG, 99.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Keion Brooks (11.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 94.7 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Oscar Tshiebwe (16.2 PPG, 15.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 80.3 DRtg)
As you can probably tell, Kentucky heavily relies on Wheeler (44.2%/27.8%/81.8%; 36.0% AST%) and Washington (47.7%/35.0%/72.5%; 23.9% AST%) to generate offense, both in the half-court and in transition. There has been a noticeable drop-off this season when either isn’t able to play, particularly when Washington is sidelined. I cannot overstate how important these two are to Kentucky’s offense. Kellan Grady is an elite spot-up shooter (45.9%/43.4%/67.9%), but he’s very much a one-trick pony.
In the front-court, Kentucky has been guided by a pair of juniors in Keion Brooks and Oscar Tshiebwe (as an aside, this is by far John Calipari’s most experienced Kentucky team, with Washington being the lone underclassman in the starting line-up). Tshiebwe is not only the clear favorite to win SEC Player of the Year, but he’s also the favorite for National Player of the Year. The man is averaging 16 points and 15 rebounds a game. That’s incredible productivity. His rebounding percentage of 28.1% is insane - I’ve never seen a rate like that for someone who logs 30+ MPG. Brooks is a rare find himself, in that he is one of the few Calipari players that came in as a blue-chip recruit, yet stuck around for a third season in Lexington. He isn’t much of a shooter (48.2%/21.7%/76.0%) - which is why he hasn’t been able to go pro - but he’s got great size for someone who can handle the ball and attack the glass like he can.
Off of the Bench
GUARD 6’3 Davion Mintz (9.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 98.9 DRtg)
GUARD 6’6 Dontaie Allen (2.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 94.6 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Bryce Hopkins (2.0 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 95.2 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Jacob Toppin (6.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.1 APG, 93.3 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Lance Ware (2.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 88.4 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Daimion Collins (3.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 85.9 DRtg)
Normally, Cal would only play seven guys in this year’s rotation, with Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin being the lone rangers off of the bench. However, with potentially three guys out tomorrow - and I really think TyTy will be one of them - the Wildcats are going to rely on the bench in this game.
Mintz is a fifth-year senior who transferred from Creighton before last season, and has served as the main source of production off of the bench (39.3%/36.6%/73.3%; 11.5% AST%). Toppin brings size, athleticism, and explosiveness to the group - he’s very similar to his brother and 2020 National Player of the Year, Obi Toppin, in this regard. He can play around the rim (11.7% REB%; 4.5% BLK%) or out on the wing (50.0% 3P%; 11.4% AST%). If Wheeler and Washington are both out, I would expect these two to get the start as Calipari opts to go big.
The ‘Cats would then need the other four guys to step-up in reserve roles. Dontaie Allen has been known in the past as a spot-up shooter - similar to Grady - but he’s really struggled this season (30.0%/18.9%/100%). He did shoot 39.7% from downtown last season though, so he is capable. Bryce Hopkins and Daimion Collins are a pair of blue-chip prospects that joined Washington in last year’s annual crop of top-ten talent that Calipari always reels in. They haven’t seen a lot of time this year, but when they do play, they can be impactful. They have all of the talent in the world. Lance Ware fits that mold as well, though he has been around for two seasons now with minimal impact.
Three Keys to Victory
- Limit Tshiebwe and Hold Up on the Glass. In the Tide’s previous meeting with the ‘Cats in Tuscaloosa, the one bright spot for the game was how well Charles Bediako held up against the future player of the year. Tshiebwe went just 4/13 from the field, as Bediako stood tall and used his height advantage with great success. The Tide will need a repeat performance from Chuck on Saturday. If Bediako can stymie Tshiebwe again, and both guards are out for Kentucky, the Wildcats will have a rough go of it trying to consistently generate offense. Of course, the Tide will need to finish out defensive possessions by rebounding, which has been a problem most of the year. And Kentucky is only 3rd in the country in OREB%.
- Push the Pace in a Controlled Manner. One way of neutralizing Kentucky’s size advantage is by making this an up-tempo, fast-paced game that utilizes transition offense and keeps those big ‘Cats moving. Of course, Alabama will have to do a much better job than they have recently of taking care of the basketball while doing so. On defense, the Tide will likely want to force the issue and play aggressively in the back-court, looking to force some turnovers, especially if Davion Mintz ends up being the only primary ball-handler available for Calipari.
- Make Jump-Shots. We all remember Alabama’s infamous 3/30 perimeter performance from two weeks back. That obviously can’t happen again if the Tide wants to compete in Lexington. Nate Oats’ defensive game-plan actually worked quite well against Kentucky - if the Tide had just connected on four more three-pointers, we’d all be talking about going for the sweep of the Wildcats for the second year in a row.
On paper, going on the road to grab a victory over a top-five team that beat you by double-digits in your home gym just two weeks prior seems like a nearly impossible task. But A) Kentucky was fully healthy in that game, B) Alabama actually held up really well against the ‘Cats, had they just shot a bit better than 10% from three, they might have won, and C) when has on-paper meant anything to this Tide team?
A win would pretty much lock Alabama into the NCAA Tournament. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Tide misses the Big Dance if they get to 18 wins, especially when victories over Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston, Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, and - hypothetically - Kentucky are among them. Riding a three-game winning streak and playing with nothing to lose against a banged-up Kentucky team might be the perfect spot for Alabama to shock the nation, once again.
The game will tip-off at noon CST and will be televised on CBS. Prior to tip-off, CBS will be revealing the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s current top-four seed-lines. Coverage of that begins at 11:30 AM CST. Alabama probably won’t be included, but there is a shot.