Blankenship, you better be there!
Tonight, Kentucky travels to Tuscaloosa, taking on Anthony Grant’s Crimson Tide. If history is any indication, this match-up between Calipari and Grant will produce yet another competitive/low scoring outcome. In the past five meetings between the two, Kentucky owns a 4-1 record over the Tide, but that record doesn’t reflect how close a majority of those contests were. When considering points scored and allowed, Calipari coached Kentucky squads only average a 7-point margin of victory over Grant coached teams. This meeting will likely be similar as both Alabama and Kentucky can’t afford another loss at this point in the season. Pair those bigger picture implications with a hostile home crowd and two defenses known for their overall efficiency and the necessary ingredients for another tight game are present. While Kentucky looked much improved against Auburn, don’t expect this final outcome to be similar, Alabama is still very dangerous despite what their record says.
Alabama’s offense isn’t the best example of overall efficiency, they’re ranked 106th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com. While they aren’t always the prettiest, they possess a trio of offensive threats capable of causing trouble for opposing defenses. Trevor Releford (center) and Trevor Lacey (right) are the most efficient of the three.
Trevor Releford is having an outstanding season, averaging 16.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. He’s also among the nations elite in maintaining possession, turning the ball over a mere 1.7 times per game. Because of Alabama’s slow offensive pace, he probably doesn’t get the credit he truly deserves as a distributor. In terms of assist/turnover percentage, which measure personal possessions and team tempo, he assists on 19.4% of team shots (498th nationally) and turns the ball over on 13.6% of possessions (255th nationally). He isn’t among the nation’s elite distributors, but he’s certainly capable of providing for others on the floor. The other important aspects of his offensive game are his abilities to draw fouls while rarely committing any himself. On the season, he’s among the SEC’s best in drawing contact, averaging 5.2 fouls drawn per-40 minutes while committing only 2.4 per-40 himself. Given the previously mentioned statistics, Trevor Releford is on Elston Turner Watch tonight.
Former Kentucky recruit, Trevor Lacey, is Alabama’s other key offensive threat. Halfway through the season, he averages 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. Lacey was billed as a perimeter threat out of high school, though he initially struggled in that role as a Freshman, connecting on 30.1% of his perimeter attempts. However, this season is much different as he connects on 45.5% of his perimeter jumpers. What makes Lacey even more of a threat is his ability to find other teammates on the floor. While his per game assist numbers are impressive, his assist rate is even more so. While on the floor, Lacey assists on 25.4% of team shots, placing him 241st nationally. Having a three point shooter as effective as Lacey is a true advantage for any team, but one with the ability to distribute at a high rate alongside efficient shooting forces a defense to spread to uncomfortable lengths.
Another player to watch out for tonight is Rodney Cooper. Like Releford and Lacey, he averages similar per game totals; 11.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.1 assists on the season. But unlike his teammates, he does so less efficiently. While the previously mentioned two average over 40% shooting from the perimeter, Cooper only manages to shoot 29% and turns the ball over at a higher rate.
Anthony Grant’s teams are known for their defense, and this season is no exception. The Crimson Tide are ranked 54th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they’re doing so with blocked shots and turnovers. The primary shot blockers are Devonta Pollard and Nick Jacobs who swat 0.9 and 1.0 per game respectively. This may not seem too impressive, but this is due to slow pace of play. When you consider block percentage, which measures team tempo, minutes payed, and shots blocked, they swat 4.4% and 6.0% of opponent twos, ranking them 259th and 153rd nationally. Creating turnovers is the other Alabama trademark; they’ve forced turnovers on 23.1% of opponent possessions (53rd nationally). Currently they have four players in the (individual) national top-500 in forcing turnovers, but the two most notable are no other than Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey.
Tonight’s game certainly won’t be easy for either side. Kentucky can’t afford another loss this early in the conference season given the perceived “downness” of the SEC. Likewise, Alabama struggled early in the season and can’t afford another loss either. One more thing to note is Alabama’s ability to connect from the perimeter; they shoot 35.5%, which is nearly identical to Kentucky’s season percentage. When examining the numbers, Kentucky is the better of the two teams, but if recent history is any indication, tonight’s game will be an absolute brawl. Combine two teams playing for everything, a charged home crowd, and recent historical outcomes together and you’ll see why Kentucky is only a 3.5 point favorite.