Updated: Feb 5
WE WANT BAMA! After having to play #2 Auburn and #5 Kansas on the road the past two weekends, Kentucky's rough stretch of Saturday away games continues as the Cats are set to take on the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama is one of the hardest teams to give a scouting report on because you never know which team of theirs is going to show up. They are the ultimate "play up to their competition" and "play down to their competition" team.
They beaten teams such as:
Gonzaga (currently #2)
Houston (currently #6)
Baylor (currently #8)
However, they have also lost to teams such as:
Georgia (currently the worst team in the SEC)
Missouri (currently the second worst team in the SEC)
Memphis (currently a dumpster fire)
However, all three of those bad losses have come on the road, while their wins over Baylor and Houston have been at home (win over Gonzaga was at a neutral site). Alabama currently holds a 10-1 record while playing at home, their only loss coming to #1 Auburn earlier this week.
They also own a record of 5-2 against teams ranked in the top #15 on the AP Poll, and trail only Marquette for most AP ranked wins. With Alabama having the home court advantage, and going against a top 5 team in Kentucky, it is fair to expect that the best version of the Tide show up on Saturday.
But of course, Kentucky has played some their best basketball in hostile road environments against top teams, just coming away with a top 5 win over Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. Kentucky has proven that there is not a team they cannot beat, nor a place that they are incapable of winning in.
Alabama is best known for playing "modern" and "NBA-style" basketball, lead by head coach Nate Oats. Their whole offense is centered around a fast paced offense, court spacing, and shooting more three pointers than any other Power 5 team in the country (29.6).
However, Coach Calipari and Kentucky have adopted a similar style of play this season. While they shoot nowhere near as many threes, the Cats love to push the ball, run on offense, and play with space. In fact, Kellan Grady actually thinks Kentucky would have the advantage if this turns into a fast-paced offensive battle.
As Coach Cal always says, someone's going to let go of the rope. We are so conditioned and so trained to play that fast... We would love if the game was a track meet. We think we have an advantage there."
Kentucky holds the current scoring lead in the SEC with 1,802 points, with Alabama coming in second with 1,790. Here is how Kentucky grows that scoring advantage and leaves Tuscaloosa with a W.
Treat Shackleford like Agbaji, not like Pippen and Molinar:
One of the keys for Kentucky coming away with a huge road win against Kansas was how they were able to limit National Player of the Year candidate, Ochai Agbaji. Agbaji is averaging 20.9 points per game on 51.5% shooting on the season, but was held to 13 points on 28.6% shooting against Kentucky.
On the other hand, Kentucky has given up 33 and 32 point performances to Scottie Pippen Jr of Vanderbilt, along with a 30 point performance from Iverson Molinar of Mississippi State.
Jaden Shackleford, Alabama's leading scorer and best player, is arguably the best volume scorer in the SEC. The lefty shooter has put up 20+ points in four of his last five contests, and is averaging 17.6 points and 3.1 made three pointers a game this season. If we let Shackleford get going, he is more than capable of putting up large scoring totals, putting Kentucky in a hole.
We were able to successfully defend Agbaji by denying him the ball. We gave him double teams throughout the game, especially when he came off of ball screens. Kellan Grady provided great man-to-man defense, but it was truly a team effort to not let Agbaji get offensive touches, forcing Kansas's other players to make shots and provide offense.
We didn't give Pippen and Molinar the same defensive attention as a team, but rather gave them the opportunity to work in isolation in one-on-one matchups. Alabama has a team full of shooters and other capable secondary scorers, including probable All-SEC guard Jahvon Quinerly. But our primary focus needs to be not letting Shackleford get scoring opportunities, and force other players to score for Alabama. If it can work for a NPOY candidate and a top 5 team in the country, it can work for Shackleford and Alabama.
Dominate the paint:
Kentucky has the luxury of being on a short list of teams to not only have an elite back court (Wheeler, Washington, Grady, Mintz), but also have a dominant interior threat (Tshiebwe). While Alabama has a backcourt that can play with Kentucky, they do not have anyone that can matchup with Kentucky in the paint, especially on the boards.
Alabama's leading rebounders are guards 6'6" Keon Ellis and previously mentioned 6'3" Jaden Shackleford. Not only Oscar Tshiebwe, but Keion Brooks, Jacob Toppin, and Lance Ware all need to give Kentucky an edge by taking advantage of the mismatch down low.
When we tried to work the low post last year against Alabama, they had recognized the mismatch and sent double and triple teams to help defend the interior. This year's team has the 3 point shooting to take advantage of double teams in the post, but we need to be able to get our shooters the ball. While Oscar has been very effective scoring in the low post, he has struggled with passing out of the post when he is doubled, often turning over the ball or forcing up a bad shot.
Oscar and Keion will need to dominate any one-on-one matchups in the post, and make good passes to open shooters while doubled. If they are able to do so, Alabama will have no answer in how to defend Kentucky.
Make your free throws:
When Alabama has no answer in how to defend a team, they often resort to fouling. In Alabama's most recent game against Auburn, Auburn had shot 39 free throws, leading to a 100 point scoring performance.
You can often blame excessive foul calls on terrible SEC officiating, but most, if not all, of these foul calls against Alabama were good calls. Alabama was simply unable to stay in front of Auburn's guards or defend in the post.
I expect Sahvir Wheeler to have a great game both scoring and creating for his teammates, due to his quickness mixed with Alabama's slow perimeter defense. TyTy Washington, if he can return to full strength, should also see the opportunity to get himself lots of paint touches.
But when this happens, Alabama will inevitably start fouling. We can not let Alabama get off the hook by not converting on our free throws, missing the front end of "one-and-one's", or not taking advantage of their subs when their starters get in foul trouble. Kentucky is 4th in the SEC in shooting percentage from the foul line (73.1%), but we know that knocking down free throws can become much more difficult when facing a hostile road environment.
If we do not let Shackleford get hot, dominate the paint, and take advantage of our trips to the free throw line, Kentucky can see very similar results this Saturday to what we saw against Kansas.
Game Notes and Predictions:
This battle of SEC foes will take place on Saturday at 8:00 pm ET in Coleman Coliseum, Alabama's home stadium. If you are watching from the comfort of your home, the game will be on primetime national television on ESPN (and will hopefully not be delayed by late game timeouts and/or poor scheduling).
I predict that Kentucky comes away with a 89-78 victory over Alabama, lead by a point-assist double-double from Sahvir Wheeler, as well as continued hot shooting from Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz.