Saturday afternoon, the Alabama Crimson Tide (12-2, 2-0 SEC; Kenpom: 8; T-Rank: 9; NET: 8) plays host to the Kentucky Wildcats (10-4, 1-1 SEC; Kenpom: 16; T-Rank: 35; NET: 36) in a game that matters significantly more to the ‘Cats than it does the Tide - in January. Quite the sentence to type out on this Friday morning, but it’s true. Such is life in 2023.
Let’s look at the big picture, the 7th-ranked Crimson Tide has a top-tier resume that is backed up by a big, talented squad that can go ten-deep and is led by arguably the best freshman in the country. Kentucky, on the other hand, is unranked and has a resume that is paper thin. If it were any name other than the Wildcats at the top of the page, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee wouldn’t take long to toss it aside. I mean, you tell me who Kentucky’s best win is against:
In fact, after years of a slow decline in results - as well as an utter disaster of a season two years ago - John Calipari is really starting to get some heat in Lexington. And it’s not without merit. In Cal’s first eight seasons as Kentucky’s head coach (2010-2017), he led the Wildcats to five regular season SEC titles, five SEC Tournament titles, four Final Four appearances, and a National Championship in 2012. They nearly went undefeated in 2015, and only twice failed to make it to the Elite Eight. However, in the past five seasons coming into this year, Kentucky has only won the SEC regular season (2020) and Tournament (2018) one time each, only made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament - a bare minimum expectation in Lexington - twice, and had one of the worst seasons (2021) and losses (2022 St. Peters) in program history.
Needless to say, with a loaded roster full of grizzled vets and talented youngsters, this season is an important one for Calipari. And it’s been a pretty huge disappointment thus far. Now, this isn’t meant to be an elegy for Cal’s ‘Cats - they were one of the favorites to win it all this preseason for a reason, and there is a lot of basketball left to be played. In fact, it’s a bit of a warning. This team is capable of turning it on and playing at an elite level at any time, which could include Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. With the Wildcats’ backs starting to push up against the wall, it’s going to take Alabama’s best if the Tide wants to help bury Calipari.
POINT 5’10 Sahvir Wheeler (9.1 PPG, 6.8 APG, 2.6 RPG, 102.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Cason Wallace (12.9 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.6 RPG, 97.0 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Chris Livingston (5.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 99.3 DRtg)
WING 6’9 Jacob Toppin (11.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 99.9 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Oscar Tshiebwe (16.8 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 89.0 DRtg)
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’4 Antonio Reeves (11.1 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.1 APG, 104.9 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 C.J. Fredrick (7.3 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.0 RPG, 105.1 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Lance Ware (3.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 94.6 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Daimion Collins (1.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 95.7 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Ugonna Onyenso (3.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 86.7 DRtg)
Any and all conversation regarding Kentucky has to start with the reigning National Player of the Year, Oscar Tshiebwe. The guy is a beast in the low post (61.1% FG%, 25.1% REB%, 4.2% BLK%, 3.1% STL%). He may not have as many post moves in his arsenal as Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, but he more than makes up for it in his raw power. A double-double machine, Tshiebwe is probably the best rebounder in the country. Kentucky’s had some issues this season, but none of them involve big Oscar.
He is joined in the frontcourt by senior Jacob Toppin, who is actually playing some the best ball of his career. He’s not much of a shooter (45.1%/17.4%/65.9%), but his ability to play out on the wing and attack the paint has been a nice source of production offensively for the Wildcats. At point guard, fellow senior Sahvir Wheeler continues to put up ridiculous assist numbers (35.8% AST%) and has even been knocking down the three-ball this year (41.7% 3P%), but his size continues to limit his defense and his ability to attack the paint.
As always, Calipari has a pair of five-star freshmen to round out the starting rotation. Chris Livingston has been a bit on the slower side in his impact and development, but he’s still got great skills and has been an efficient scorer (44.3%/39.1%/85.0%). Cason Wallace is probably the best freshman in the SEC not named Brandon Miller. He’s been a dynamic scorer (50.4%/45.6%/57.7%) and has really quick hands that he utilizes to create turnovers on defense (4.1% STL%).
Off the bench, the Wildcats have a pair of spot-up sharpshooters in Antonio Reeves (39.4%/40.3%/75.0%) and C.J. Fredrick (41.8%/38.8%/85.7%) who transferred in from Illinois State and Iowa, respectively. They both lack pretty severely on the defensive end of the court though. And of course, Kentucky has a trio of bigs waiting in the wings any time Toppin or Tshiebwe need a breather.
Three Keys to Victory
- Limit Big Oscar. If you want to beat Kentucky, you have to hope to at least contain Oscar Tshiebwe (or just shoot the lights out like Mizzou did). When the Wildcats came to Tuscaloosa last season, Charles Bediako did a heck of a job, holding Tshiebwe to just 10 points on 4/13 from the floor, though he did end up with 15 boards. That gave Alabama a chance though, which our guards threw away with a historically awful 3/30 performance from three-point land. With the amount of size that the Tide has this year, Chuck will have some help in the post. Alabama can throw big bodies at Tshiebwe all day.
- Defend the Perimeter. Usually, whenever Alabama plays Kentucky, I write in this section that the Tide needs to pack the paint and force the Wildcats to take jump-shots all game - and then, inevitably, Kentucky shoots 20% higher from three than their season average. So, let’s try something different this year. For all of the ‘Cats struggles this season, they can actually shoot it this year. They are 12th in the country at 39.0% from three-point range. Alabama is 11th in defending the three though, so the Tide’s ability to lock down the perimeter could be the difference in this game.
- Take Care of the Basketball. I mean it’s night and day, the difference in Alabama’s offense when the Tide doesn’t turn it over constantly. Alabama had only 7 turnovers against Ole Miss the other night, and just absolutely crushed the Rebels. It was never a game. If Alabama takes care of the ball, there are only a handful of teams in the country that can beat them, and even they would have to play their best.
This should be a fantastic basketball game in Tuscaloosa tomorrow. The preseason pick to win the SEC going up against the highest-ranked team in the conference at this moment. Defending National Player of the Year vs the best freshman in the country. NBA scouts are going to litter Coleman Coliseum, which should be an electric atmosphere. The ole mausoleum can come to life for certain matchups, and this is one of those.
John Calipari and his Wildcats are starting to really feel the pressure. Will they get up off the mat against the SEC’s best in Tuscaloosa? Or will Nate Oats and the Tide continue to roll through the early portion of conference play? If you don’t already have a ticket lined-up, you can watch this noon tip-off on ESPN.