With 2018 now in the rear-view mirror, the Crimson Tide (9-3) will open up 2019 with their biggest game of the season thus far, as the 13th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (10-2) come to Tuscaloosa. It wasn’t always pretty, but finishing out 2018 with a nice little win streak got Alabama to where it needed to be in order to feel pretty good about controlling their own destiny regarding a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament come March. 20 wins before the post-season should be enough for the Tide, so with the inclusion of the Baylor game for the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, Avery Johnson’s team needs to go 11-8 the rest of the way.
Saturday is the perfect place to start. Kentucky began the season looking a little rough, getting embarrassed by Duke in the opener and losing an overtime game to Seton Hall; however, they ended non-conference play on a strong note themselves, with wins over North Carolina and Louisville. It seems that the ‘Cats have righted their wrongs from early on, and are currently looking like the conference and national contenders that everyone expected them to be this season.
The good news about that is Alabama seemingly has nothing to lose. A loss to Kentucky certainly isn’t going to banish this team to the NIT, but a win could be the spark to a successful run in SEC play.
POINT 6’3 Ashton Hagans (4.5 PPG, 3.1 APG, 1.4 RPG, 1.7 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Tyler Herro (13.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.5 SPG)
WING 6’6 Keldon Johnson (16.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.8 SPG)
POST 6’7 P.J. Washington (12.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.3 BPG)
POST 6’8 Reid Travis (14.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.9 BPG)
The primary reason for Kentucky righting the ship recently? They found their point guard. True freshman Hagans hasn’t been a prolific scorer (39.2%/12.5%/72.2%), but he’s one of those point guards that just knows how to run a team and make everyone else around him better. With an AST% of 23.3%, he gets the ball where it needs to go for them to be successful, and he’s played much better defense (96.0 DRtg) than former starter-turned-transfer Quade Green.
Joining him in the back-court is fellow freshman (a familiar refrain) Herro. A product of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Herro is exactly the kind of player you would typically expect to find on the Badgers roster: a white scrappy dude that can shoot. Except he was a star recruit with a much higher ceiling than you typically find in Madison. On the wing, Keldon Johnson is the typical Calipari one-and-done star. He shoots the ball well (53.7%/43.2%/71.4%), attacks the basket with ease, and can rebound and play defense. He’s really the main producer of points on the offensive end, and Alabama will need to limit his looks.
In the post, Kentucky isn’t as big or prolific as they’ve been in the past, but they’ve got a great one-two punch in Reid and Washington. Both can score in a variety of ways, including out on the arc (Travis: 56.0%/38.5%/71.6%; Washington: 53.0%/45.0%/69.2%), and both of them are strong on defense (Travis: 100.2 DRtg; Washington: 93.4 DRtg) and able to bang on the boards (Travis: 13.3% REB%; Washington: 19.1%), though Washington is clearly superior in both aspects.
GUARD 6’3 Immanuel Quickley (6.7 PPG, 1.8 APG, 2.0 RPG)
GUARD 6’4 Jemarl Baker Jr. (2.3 PPG, 0.5 RPG)
POST 6’10 E.J. Montgomery (4.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
POST 6’11 Nick Richards (3.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 BPG)
Kentucky’s bench offers an interesting dichotomy: incredibly thin at guard and on the wing but deep and talented in the post, Montgomery and Richards would be starting for most teams. Montgomery was actually the highest rated recruit in Kentucky’s 2018 class, but he’s struggled quite a bit to score (48.1%/0.0%/64.3%). Regardless, he’s still a strong defender (97.6 DRtg) and rebounder (15.5% REB%). Richards has been every bit as good in those two areas as Washington has (94.5 DRtg, 18.9% REB%), but he doesn’t have great skills with the ball. Washington is also an excellent passer out of the post.
- But again, there is very little depth elsewhere. Quickley got his turn to start at point before Hagans did, and the team just didn’t click in the same way. He’s better coming off of the bench, but he’s not lived up to his star billing just yet (41.2%/29.6%/85.7%, 12.5% AST%, almost as many turnovers as assists). However, he’s a very talented player who is most likely going through typical freshman struggles, similarly to Montgomery; he could easily go for 20/5/5 any given night, With Green opting to transfer mid-season, Baker Jr. has seen more playing time, but the results haven’t been there yet.
- Ball Movement and Three-Pointers. The Wildcats are, as always, quite difficult to score on when trying to play iso-ball. However, they’ve been slow in their rotations this season, and are giving up a bunch of open three-pointers because of it. The ‘Cats have allowed opponents to shoot 37.8% from down-town on them, and, outside of both Tobacco Road schools, they haven’t exactly played a murder’s row of offenses. Now, I know what you are thinking. Yes, Alabama is terrible at both of these things. Well, sometimes crazy things happen in basketball, and this is quite clearly the best way to beat Kentucky this season.
- Rebounding. This is probably the only area Alabama can confidently say they do as well as Kentucky does. The Tide have only lost the rebounding battle once this season. If they want to stun Kentucky in Coleman, they will need to come out with a + margin in this category, which ins’t easy to do against a team with as much size and depth in the post as Kentucky has.
- John Petty, Let’s be honest, Petty is the ace in our sleeve. He’s struggled as a shooter a good bit this season, but we know what he’s capable of. If he knocks down his first three-pointer in front of what should be our best crowd of the year, I’m officially calling the game on.
The Crimson Tide have had their struggles this season, but the path back to the NCAA Tournament is clearly there. Regardless, the expectation at Alabama is to compete in conference play as well, and there is no better opportunity to do that then a home game against Kentucky. The Tide will need to play their best in order to beat a Calipari-led team that seems to be clicking right now, but if the shots are falling, Alabama can hang with anyone. Can they start off 2019 with a bang?