When the seeds were locked in last Saturday night you just knew this was going to happen. For the fourth year in a row, Kentucky and Alabama will be meeting in the SEC Tournament.
Avery Johnson is undefeated in this format against every other conference team outside of Kentucky. Tonight he’ll look to end the streak. For the 19th time ever these two programs will meet in the postseason with Kentucky looking to collect their 17th win. No team has played UK more in the postseason.
Nuts and Bolts
Avery Johnson is approaching the end of his fourth season as the head basketball coach at the University of Alabama and the Crimson Tide have made the postseason each year. The problem has been that it’s been in the NIT more than the NCAAs.
Johnson has compiled a 75-60 record in Tuscaloosa and currently the Tide find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble once again. For the third time in four years, Alabama needs to beat Kentucky in Nashville to punch their at-large ticket.
Under Johnson, the Tide have never had a top 50 KenPom finish and have only recorded one winning season in the SEC. Overall, Bama has gone 8-10 three times in league play and has constantly limped to the finish of the regular season despite reeling in two top 25 recruiting classes. Under Johnson, Alabama’s defenses have been consistently strong but they have struggled on the offensive end of the floor.
In his first three years, Bama had three sub-100 adjusted offensive efficiency finishes. This year’s squad has been the best, but they currently sit at 100. Despite having an NBA point guard and numerous other blue-chip prospects, the Tide have struggled to consistently put the ball in the hoop. They have been a poor free throw shooting team and are very sloppy with the basketball.
Personnel wise, there aren’t many teams in the country that can lineup athletically with the Crimson Tide. Alabama is long and athletic at each position and at times they can make you hold your breath with some of the athletic plays they can make in open space. Kentucky won’t outrun Alabama. They will have to lean on execution and smart basketball to lead them to a win.
Overall, this will be the 151st meeting between the two programs with Kentucky owning a 112-38 lead. Bama and UK have met a ton in the postseason and the Tide currently rank second in the SEC with seven SEC Tournament titles. Since arriving in Tuscaloosa, Avery Johnson is just 1-7 against UK. Since taking over in Lexington, John Calipari is 14-3 against Alabama. This will be the sixth time that Cal has faced off against Alabama in the SEC Tournament. This will be the fourth meeting in Bridgestone Arena.
On the perimeter, Alabama has two intriguing pro prospects in Kira Lewis Jr. and John Petty. The two underclassmen have rode a roller coaster all season, but when they are on Alabama can play at a top 20 level.
With the departure of Collin Sexton to the NBA following a Round of 32 exit last season, there were some huge shoes to fill at the point guard position. To find an answer, Avery Johnson hit the recruiting trail and reeled in a high ceiling point guard.
Lewis Jr. reclassified, similar to Ashton Hagans, to get to college a season early. The young man won’t turn 18 years old until after the season is over. Alabama has asked a lot of him this year and mostly the diaper dandy has delivered.
The 6-foot-3 guard leads the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game and has poured in 52 three-pointers on a 36.6 percent shooting clip. Lewis Jr. leads the team in minutes, is dishing out 2.9 assists per outing, and has a very high ceiling as an isolation defender. He’s been rock solid in an up-and-down season. Unlike Sexton, he will be returning to campus for his sophomore year and will be a cornerstone of the program.
John Petty was a blue-chip recruit in the class of 2017 and schools all over the country wanted the services of this 6-foot-5 two-guard. After starting 29 games as a true freshman making 90 threes on a 37 percent shooting rate, expectations were high for Petty to turn into a super sophomore.
Overall, Petty has made progress as a basketball player but it has not been the jump many expected. This season the sophomore has taken a step back as a three-point specialist with only 55 makes on a 34.6 percent shooting rate. However, the other parts of his game have grown.
Petty has become a more efficient player from two-point range and has done a better job at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. He can be a bit streaky, but the sophomore can fill it up if he is on.
Dazon Ingram is considered Bama’s third guard and he is the guy that runs the point whenever Lewis Jr. is on the pine. Ingram is a solid defender and a slasher on offense who is constantly diving to the basket looking for contact. Avery Johnson Jr. is the only other guard Bama uses in a very limited role.
Alabama’s best player in the paint is senior Donta Hall and the 6-foot-9 big may be college basketball’s best dunker outside of the guy named Zion that resides in Durham.
The Luverne, Alabama native has recorded 11 double-doubles this season and ranks first in the SEC in effective field goal percentage. Hall is a dominant defensive rebounder and by himself he should be able to eliminate a ton of second chance opportunities for UK. In SEC play, the big is shooting over 70 percent from the field. On the season, he is putting up a very respectable 10.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per outing. He’s going to be a tall task for UK to wrestle with in the paint.
On the wing, Alabama will use two players who each have a lot of potential. Herbert Jones is another blue-chip recruit on this roster and the sophomore is one of the best defensive players in the SEC. Jones is very, very limited on the offensive end and is an absolute liability at the free throw line (48.5 percent).
Jones brings the defense and Tevin Mack brings the offense. The Texas transfer is third on the team in shot attempts despite playing just over 2o minutes per game. Mack can get hot (21 points, four threes in SEC Tournament win over Ole Miss and 22 points, 6 made threes in upset win over Kentucky). However, he can also get very cold shown by his 10 single-digit point contributions in conference action. In some ways, he could be considered Alabama’s most dangerous player. When he’s putting the ball in the hole, Alabama suddenly looks a lot better on offense.
In a reserve role, Alabama leans on Riley Norris, Alex Reese, and Galin Smith. Norris brings experience and a stretch ability on offense with his shooting ability. Smith is a bruiser down low. Reese is a mix of the two.
Keys to Victory
- In recent weeks, we’ve seen Alabama lean on defense. It’s what Avery Johnson’s teams do best and they’re relying on that strength to help improve their NCAA Tournament resume. That means less minutes for John Petty and more non-offensive players on the floor. Therefore, Kentucky’s defense must be locked in. Get out on Tevin Mack, force Kira Lewis Jr. to hit tough twos, and own the defensive glass.
- Despite their length, Alabama has not been a successful rim protection team. When you are able to create drives and paint touches, buckets will be there for the taking in the paint. Drives for Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans will be there. Tyler Herro should be able to get off plenty of floaters. Kentucky must be precise in execution to get Reid Travis and PJ Washington paint touches. If they’re able to do that they will have a chance to have a very good night on the offensive end.
- Even though John Petty has just played 22 minutes or less in the last two games, the sophomore is still dangerous whenever he is on the floor. When he’s on, he will pull it from anywhere and can individually go on a 12-0 run in four of five possessions. Kentucky must be aware whenever Petty is on the floor.
- Reid Travis is making his return to the floor tonight, but we should all expect a minutes restriction for the senior. Therefore, UK is going to need productive minutes from EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards. Bama does not have a ton of girth inside, but they do have length. Kentucky needs Richards and Montgomery to grab some rebounds, protect the rim, and make themselves useful on offense.
These two teams met in the SEC Tournament semifinals in St. Louis last season and Kentucky rode a career day from Wenyen Gabriel on their way to a blowout victory.
The stretch four sophomore poured in all seven of his three-point attempts on his way to 23 points in one of the UK’s best games of the season last year. The year before, De’Aaron Fox went for 28 points in a five-point victory. In 2016, both Jamal Murray and Alex Poythress scored 20-plus in a blowout win. Could we see another Wildcat step up and have a huge game against the Tide at the SEC Tournament?