SEC play begins this afternoon in Tuscaloosa. The Roll Tide faithful are gearing themselves up for a national championship game on Monday, but first there is a significant basketball game occurring at Coleman Coliseum.
Avery Johnson is in his fourth season as Bama’s head coach and fresh off his first NCAA Tournament appearance. This year the Tide are scraping and clawing to get back to the Big Dance. After winning nine of their first 12 games to start the season, they’ll be looking for their first marquee win today.
ESPN will be in town for the afternoon tip with Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas on the call. Can Kentucky pick up consecutive road victories to start off 2019?
Nuts and Bolts
Alabama is this SEC’s bell cow on the gridiron, but on the hardwood they have some impressive history. They are second in the league in conference tournament championships and have made eight appearances in the Sweet 16. The most successful coach in this run was Wimp Sanderson.
The plaid jacket wearing head coach took over for C.M. Newton in Tuscaloosa and took the Alabama basketball program to its peak. The Tide made five Sweet 16 appearances and won four SEC Tournaments. Since then it’s been a lot of ups and downs.
Mark Gottfried took Alabama to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments before the bottom fell out. Expectations were high for former Florida assistant Anthony Grant, but he was sent packing after only making one NCAA Tournament in six seasons. Needing a spark, Alabama turned to a former NBA point guard and head coach.
Avery Johnson, the former head coach of the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets, was doing NBA television for ESPN before deciding to get back into coaching. With the SEC putting a bigger emphasis on coaching, the Tide’s answer was the former point guard who won an NBA title with Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
After making the NIT in each of his first two seasons, Alabama finally made the NCAA Tournament behind one-and-done point guard Collin Sexton. However, even that was a bit of a disappointment despite making the Round of 32. The Tide lost 16 games with a very talented roster. The jury is still out on Johnson at the college level. Alabama had a good non-conference slate, but there are still head scratching losses occurring. The Crimson Tide will have some work to do to make the field of 68. To do that, they’ll probably need Johnson’s best conference record (went 10-8 in 2016-17) to make the postseason.
Today will be the 149th meeting between these two programs with Kentucky holding a 112-37 edge. Alabama has not beaten Kentucky since 2013 and the Wildcats currently own a 10-game winning streak over the Tide. Avery Johnson is 0-7 against Kentucky with three of those losses occurring in the SEC Tournament. John Calipari is 14-2 against Alabama with a 5-0 mark in the SEC Tournament. However, Cal is only 3-2 at Coleman Coliseum.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 4-point favorite with a total of 150. That’s a projected final score of 77-73. On the season, UK is 6-6 against the spread but the Cats have covered five of their last six. Alabama is 4-7-1 against the spread, but the Tide have covered three in a row. Alabama is 0-1 against the number as an underdog this season.
Collin Sexton was one of the best point guards in the country last year and losing him to the NBA was a big deal. He left a big hole at point guard and Avery Johnson was going to have to hit the recruiting trail to find a replacement. He did just by locking up Kira Lewis.
The top-40 prospect out of Alabama was a must get for Johnson and he’s playing heavy minutes as a diaper dandy. Lewis has started every game to begin his college career and he’s been very efficient. The skinny point guard is a knock down three-point shooter and is very good from the charity stripe. He leads the team in scoring and assists. He’s the straw that stirs the drink.
Joining Lewis in the backcourt is another blue-chip prospect. John Petty was a big time recruit out of Alabama and nearly ended up at Kentucky. In his sophomore season he has been up and down. The old school two-guard is second on the team in scoring, but he’s only shooting 33.3 percent from three. He’s second on the team in shot attempts and the Tide will force feed him touches in their halfcourt offense.
Off the bench, Dazon Ingram was another big recruiting win for Avery Johnson and he’s a versatile player off the bench. The redshirt junior is this squad’s best perimeter defender, but is very limited offensively. The lefty refuses to shoot from three and wants to attack off the bounce. Look for UK to sag off when he is on the floor.
Due to their roster construction, Alabama will be playing a lot of big lineups. They will be one of the longest teams UK will face all season and their defense will really be able to challenge Kentucky’s offense. In the paint, it starts with Donta Hall.
The 6-foot-9 senior is putting up 11 points and 8 rebounds in his senior season and he’s excellent of the defensive side of the floor. The five is one of the best shot blockers in the SEC and he’s improved in a big way on offense. He’s an excellent screen-and-roll big in addition to having a much improved post game. He’ll be a challenge for UK to handle on the interior.
Herbert Jones was another blue-chip recruit landed by Avery Johnson, and you guessed it, he’s an Alabama native. The 6-foot-7 wing is probably at his best at the four spot, but due to Alabama’s roster he has to play a lot on the wing. He’s a very poor shooter (under 50 percent from three) and really hurts the Tide’s offensive spacing in the halfcourt. However, he’s a force on the defensive end and his length provides plenty of deflections.
Keys to Victory
- Traditionally, Alabama has been very good on defense under Avery Johnson but that hasn’t been the case this season. The Tide have a hard time forcing turnovers and opponents are hitting over 35 percent from three. The Wildcats will have an advantage on offense and they must take advantage. However, Bama is very good on the defensive glass.
- Whenever you go on the road in college basketball, fouls are obviously going to be an issue. Facing a physical team like Alabama that sometimes primarily seeks contact, you must be really aware of how you guard. If this game comes down to foul trouble, the fact that Bama struggles from the line could be a big key.
- One of Kentucky’s biggest strengths this season has been on the glass, but today they’re facing a team that is also very good on the boards. The Tide are long, athletic, and they ferociously attack the glass. Rebounding takes a lot of effort and if UK isn’t playing hard they could get embarrassed in going after rebounds. Whoever wins the battle of the boards will have a great chance to win the basketball game.