The Alabama Crimson Tide are the third winningest program in the SEC by percentage, and there is a reason for that - they play very good basketball down in Tuscaloosa, even if they like football a whole lot better. Tonight, Kentucky challenges Alabama, a team that has struggled early in the season, dropping 5 out of its 6 December games, some defensible and some not.
Season comparison (via Statsheet.com)
|Rank and Records||UK||Bama|
|Strength of Schedule||#55||#30|
|RPI Top 50||0-3||0-3|
|23||Cade Johnson||R||F||6-6||185||FR||Likely redshirt|
Relaford is the leading scorer for the Tide, even though he comes off the bench. Releford is a very efficient scorer with an offensive rating of almost 123, good enough for 89th in the country. He shoots 41% from three (same as Kyle Wiltjer) and has a true shooting percentage of 62%, which is outstanding. He is a very dangerous and effective player, and whoever guards him will have their hands full.
Gueye is their leading rebounder, and he gets over 25% of the Tide's defensive rebounds, as well as 12% of offensive rebounds. Lacey is the main 3-point threat, even more so than Releford at 46% from the arc. The good news is that the Tide don't shoot an awful lot of threes, getting only 27% of their points from there.
The other player that has to be accounted for is Cooper, who likes to get his points in closer, and is more of an athletic slasher. He can and will shoot the ball from outside if left open. The other major offensive threat is Levi Randolph, who also makes around 40% of his 3-point shots, but he doesn't take that many and is more of a role player this year. Alabama as a team is shooting 45.5% from the arc in conference, a staggering percentage.
Style of Play
Alabama is almost exclusively a man-to-man team, and they play very tough defense usually, although this year they are only 4th in the conference in defensive efficiency considering conference-only opponents. In fact, they are allowing opponents to shoot almost 53% eFG against them.
Unlike most years, Alabama is very good on the offensive side of the ball this season, ranking 4th just behind Kentucky in offensive efficiency and third in field goal percentage at 52.2% eFG, again just behind Kentucky's 52.6%. The Tide are not a good offensive rebounding team this year, currently ranking 9th to Kentucky's 5th. Alabama has had a slightly tougher schedule so far, but not significantly so, and both teams are 3-1 in conference.
Kentucky has small advantages in all the four factors, but no significant ones. The most significant may be free throw rate, but that is negated by the fact that Alabama shoots free throws very well, much better than UK at 73.3% in conference.
This Alabama team is really different from the teams of the last few years. They have good, but not great size with Engstrom injured, and Moussa Gueye does not play an awful lot of minutes, so they spend quite a bit of time small. But this team can shoot, and that makes them very dangerous for Kentucky. Even though the Wildcats have defended the three very well in conference this season so far, they have been far from the best defensive team in general and they will be lacking Willie Cauley-Stein for the second straight game.
Alabama is capable of matching up well with Kentucky. They are athletic if not especially long, and their guards are strong-bodied and thick, and like to take the ball into the painted area. That will challenge Nerlens Noel both to defend the rim and avoid the foul trouble he wound up with last weekend.
The biggest challenge for UK will be guarding their hot shooters and forcing them into the paint. Alabama's shooters are not especially great when challenged, so it's very important for Kentucky to minimize open looks. Alabama may shoot the three well, but they don't defend it particularly well, allowing opponents to shoot 36% against them. Kyle Wiltjer, Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow should get some looks, but they must make them.
Kentucky should be barely favored to win this game, and the line I have seen is UK -4, which seems about right. This will be a very tough, difficult game for Kentucky and is one that they can easily lose if they don't play well, or if Noel gets in a bunch of foul trouble.