The Cats have now logged two consecutive wins away from Rupp Arena, both in impressive fashion. The victories pushed their season record to 10-2 entering conference play. It was satisfying for the Big Blue Nation to see Kentucky win rather easily on the road last week against Louisville. But there was obviously plenty of blue inside the KFC YUM! Center, so this young team will likely see the most hostile environment of the season when they travel to Tuscaloosa for a Saturday afternoon ESPN game.
This game against Alabama will mark the end of a five-week long stretch that began on December 1st where Kentucky has only played a Saturday game each week. This allowed for additional practice time with classes taking a break for the holidays. The impact of the annual “Camp Cal” has already shown on the floor and it was evident after beating the Cardinals that John Calipari is excited where his team is at right now.
In the Cal era, it has been textbook for early fan overreaction to be followed by the understanding that this is a process. It feels like this team has reached the point where it’s more about executing what they do as opposed to game planning how to stop an opponent. You can see below where Calipari recently tweeted about grueling multiple session practices per day and his delight with how the players were handling it.
Player-driven practices are enjoyable for players and coaches. Stay in the moment! Conquer yourself each day and watch what happens. #HappyNewYear!!!
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) December 31, 2018
Now for the keys to the game.
Keep up the balanced Attack
Kentucky has had a different scoring leader in 4 of the 5 games in the month of December. While it’s obvious that Keldon Johnson is establishing himself as the go-to option on offense, there has also been evidence of UK balancing out their attack. The Recipe for success over the last few weeks has been to accomplish things from the inside out.
Reid Travis and PJ Washington have been monsters over the last two games combining for 45 points and 26 rebounds. The two big guys will be counted on even more heading into the predictably physical challenge of SEC play. I think you can expect to see both Travis and Washington getting early touches on the block for just about every game going forward. Once that has happened it will open things up for guys like Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro who are both scoring the ball with ease right now.
The Cats have worked their scoring average up to just over 83 points per game and their field goal percentage is nearing 50%. I took immediate notice of the effortless ball movement in the Louisville game. Often times you can hear Cal yelling on TV about pushing the ball or not holding it. His disdain for “ball stoppers” makes sense because when the ball is being moved from side to side, this team is showing how hard they are to guard.
When shots from outside are falling it will make Kentucky next to impossible to beat. But in order to make three pointers consistently, the Cats need to take good shots and that comes from working the ball inside out. Calipari is continuing to preach that his team should be willing passers.
Ashton Hagans is turning the corner both literally and figuratively. Late in the second half at Louisville the freshman point guard was putting his head down and driving to score the basketball. This resembles how nearly all Calipari coached point guards play – attacking the defense with the intent to score and distributing the ball once the help arrives.
Hagans isn’t averaging mind blowing numbers offensively, but anyone who knows college basketball can see the impact that he is having on each game. His menacing defense and tenacious ball pressure are making opposing teams feel uncomfortable which cannot be quantified on the stat sheet. If Ashton Hagans can show the same improvement in January as he did in December, it is scary to think about how good Kentucky can be.
Hagans will get another chance to guard a great scorer on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Kira Lewis Jr is another freshman point guard and scores the majority of Alabama’s points. John Petty is another streaky scorer who could see Hagans in his grill if he gets hot at any point during the game.
Who is Alabama?
The Crimson Tide are coached by former NBA player, Avery Johnson, and will enter Saturday’s match-up with a record of 9-3. This will be Alabama’s first SEC game of the season along with Kentucky. The Tide beat Wichita State 90-86 earlier this season, but have had some bad losses, including dropping a home game to Georgia State. As I mentioned before, I would anticipate a wild crowd at Coleman Coliseum, with far less blue than the Cats saw last week.
The Crimson Tide have two guards to do the bulk of the scoring, Kira Lewis Jr and John Petty. Lewis Jr is Alabama’s leading scorer and will likely see Ashton Hagans to start the game.
Lewis Jr has scored over 17 points in six games this season. You may remember Petty from last year when he was running mates with Collin Sexton, who is now a Cleveland Cavalier. Lewis has been the more consistent of the two, but when Petty gets hot, he will pull up from just about anywhere on the court.
Per usual, dominating in the paint will be critical for Kentucky. 6-9 senior PF Donta Hall is a really good college player. He has scored in double figures in each of the last six games while making an incredible 25 of 31 shots. Hall is a proven player in the SEC and will need to be respected as such. Beating Kentucky in his senior year is surely to be something that is on his mind.
Conference play is going to be tough, but it looks like this Kentucky team is ready to take on the challenge.
Here’s how you can watch the game:
Kentucky Wildcats (10-2) at Alabama Crimson Tide (9-3)
When: 1 PM EST., Saturday, Jan. 5
Online stream: Watch ESPN
Replay: Check local listings on SEC Network and WatchESPN
Radio: Tom Leach and Mike Pratt will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM and 98.1 FM in Lexington. Go here for more affiliates.
Odds: No line has been set, but KenPom projects Kentucky to be a 4.5-point favorite. The Wildcats are 3-0 against the spread in their last three games.
Predictions: ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Kentucky a 60.3% chance to win. Be sure to check out our predictions for the game.