First, consider the rarity in having Alabama Crimson Tide being the home team versus the Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC Tournament. This is not meant as disrespect to Alabama, as they absolutely deserve their higher seed. Rather, it is meant to illustrate just how far the Crimson Tide have come, and how fast. Once more, I lament that Anthony Grant did not get rewarded with the SEC Coach of the Year he so richly deserves.
Moving on to a look at today's game, both Alabama and Kentucky got to this contest by virtue of a very tough and physical quarter final against worthy SEC opponents -- Alabama defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in overtime, and Kentucky outlasted the Mississippi Rebels in a tough, physical game that surely left some bumps and bruises, as well as nearly coming to blows in the hallway following the game. Such is the dynamic of March -- teams are highly motivated and will leave every ounce of effort on the floor.
We all know by now that Alabama is a tough-minded team that gets it done more by effort than by skill. Alabama is a scoring-challenged team that defends teams from the moment they set foot on the floor until the last buzzer sounds. It was that attitude (plus some missed point-blank shots by the 'Dawgs) that send Georgia down to defeat yesterday. Alabama is all about toughness and physicality, and that's what they will bring again today.
Kentucky just got done taking the best punch of a tough, physical team in Ole Miss that is not nearly as good as 'Bama defensively, but the two teams are similar in that they like to push, shove and muscle the opponent. The big worry for this game is much like the last -- can Kentucky, a team noted for a lack of toughness on the road, continue to win grind-it-out, possession-by-possession games against teams for whom toughness and physical play is their stock in trade?
Alabama Game Plan
Alabama will try no tricks on Kentucky, no magic and no deception. The Tide, as a basketball team, are about as subtle as a local used-car lot advertisement. They don't have any surprises in store, and you know just exactly what they are going to do from tip to horn. They are a rough and tumbled defend-your-butt team that will bring the best defense in the league and the tenth best defense in the nation right into the Wildcats' grille.
Alabama will not be bombing away from three like Ole Miss did, and the biggest reason is that they simply don't shoot that shot well, making only 28% of their threes in conference play. Alabama did shoot the three well versus UK in their meeting in Tuscaloosa, but their odds of repeating that performance is low.
The Tide, instead, will try to get the ball inside to JaMychal Green and Chris Hines and shoot layups and dunks. When that doesn't work, Trevor Releford, Senario Hillman, Tony Mitchell and Charvez Davis will slash to the basket to force rotation and try to get it to the big guys, make layups or get fouled. Occasionally Davis or Mitchell will shoot an open three. In other words Alabama's offense is just like their defense, about as subtle as a M-1 tank driving through a nitroglycerin factory.
Defensively, the Tide will not resort to fancy zones or junk defense. They will guard Kentucky in their face, and when they get disadvantaged, they will bump, grab, shove, trip, block, take charges -- whatever it takes -- to stop the play. There really isn't a lot to say about the Tide defense. It is all about effort and winning every defensive matchup.
Kentucky Game Plan
The big worry for Kentucky is the same worry as last game -- fouls. Alabama is going to be physical, and when Kentucky tries to match that, they are going to pick up fouls. Alabama can absorb more fouls than Kentucky can, and that's their advantage in this game.
Terrence Jones is a big question mark. His ankle tweak was bad enough that he said he could not go left yesterday. Well, if Jones can't go left today, he won't be doing much scoring, because he is severely left-handed and has almost no game to his right. So Jones will have to defend, rebound, and make himself as threatening as possible without putting up bad shots -- something he has done far too often lately.
So Kentucky will be leaning a lot on Darius Miller and the freshmen today, and I suspect that this is Miller's moment to really prove himself. With Jones dinged up, Miller must assert himself in the lane and avoid the silly fouls he committed yesterday against Ole Miss. Kentucky must set hard screens and cut shoulder-to-shoulder off them in order to free up shooters. Most importantly, Kentucky must compete hard on the glass, as Alabama is the best offensive rebounding team in the SEC.
Defensively, Kentucky may want to try zone for a few possessions on the Tide, both to protect their big men and to force Alabama into looks that they normally make at a low percentage. The domed stadium makes shooting a bit harder, and it's already hard enough for Alabama.
But Calipari is a man-to-man coach, so I don't think we'll see all that much zone. Kentucky must stay at home on their men and force them to take shots as far away from the goal as possible. Alabama is a relatively poor shooting team, so anything Kentucky can do to force the Tide into lower percentage shots will be in their favor.
Finally, Kentucky must make threes. If UK shoots 25% again from the arc like they did yesterday, they will probably lose this game. Alabama won't give the 'Cats many free looks, and they must make the most of the ones they do get.
- JaMychal Green vs. Josh Harrellson: Green was a player of the year candidate, is longer and more athletic than Harrellson. Harrellson is a better offensive rebounder, and can score. Advantage: Alabama
- Chris Hines vs. Terrence Jones: This matchup is normally strongly to Jones, but his ankle may change that equation. I'm going with the default. Advantage: Kentucky
- Tony Mitchell vs. Darius Miller: Both these players can score, rebound and defend. There's hardly any difference between them. Advantage: Push.
- Charvez Davis vs. Doron Lamb: Both are good shooters, but Lamb is exceptional. Davis is left handed, which gives him a slight advantage, but Lamb is an improving defender and deadly 3-point shooter. Advantage: Kentucky
- Trevor Releford vs. Brandon Knight: Both freshman point guards are excellent, but Brandon Knight is truly exceptional and wasn't first-team all-SEC for nothing. Advantage: Kentucky
- Bench: Alabama's bench is slightly deeper, but they effectively play a seven-man rotation. Kentucky's depth is more skilled. Advantage: Push.
Kentucky must really guard the dribble drive against this team, as they will attack the basket relentlessly. This is a game in which you must save your fouls for as long as possible.
Kentucky has to get to the foul line more often, especially early in the game, than they did yesterday. The Wildcats got there a lot late in the game, but the 'Cats don't want to be nip and tuck with the Tide in the last minute if they can help it. Just ask Georgia how that worked out for them.
Taking the ball out of Releford's hands as much as possible would greatly enhance Kentucky's chances. Releford is the straw that stirs the Tide cocktail.
If there was ever a team to zone, Alabama is it. They shoot the ball poorly from everywhere outside the paint.
If there was ever a game where defensive rebounding is more important, it's this one. The Tide are a poor-shooting team who get a ton of second-chance points. It's absolutely indispensable to their success.
That's it. Here's a chance for UK to make a case for a #2 seed. Go, 'Cats!