The Kentucky Wildcats finished the regular season with a record of 26-5, ranked as the No. 4 team in the country, and go into postseason play with a ton of momentum.
The SEC Tournament is already underway in Nashville, and the Wildcats will take the court on Friday around 7 pm against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Alabama is coming off a 62-57 win over the Ole Miss Rebels. The Tide actually trailed by as many as 16 but rallied in the second half to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Tevin Mack led the way with 21 points on 8/13 shooting to go with six boards off the bench.
Kira Lewis chipped in 13 to go with three assists and four steals. Lewis matching up with Ashton Hagans will be one of the better point guard battles we see in college hoops this week.
After a slow start to the season, the Wildcats really started to put it together in January and quickly emerged as a title contender. After finishing second in the SEC for the regular season, Kentucky sits behind the 3 seed Tennessee Volunteers in the odds of winning the conference tournament.
The Wildcats and Tide actually faced off in their first SEC matchup. Kentucky was coming off back-to-back monster wins over Louisville and North Carolina, but 22 points from Tevin Mack sparked a 77-75 win for Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Kentucky will now look to avenge that loss when the two face off Friday night.
Even though Nashville has a friendlier crowd than Tuscaloosa, expect this to be another slugfest with the Tide still fighting for their postseason lives. A win, and they’re a near-lock to make the Big Dance.
A loss, however, will have them sweating bullets when Selection Sunday begins. They were among the last teams out of the tournament coming into today, according to Joe Lunardi. They need a win in the worst way on Friday, but the Wildcats will be hungry for revenge.
What to Watch for
The big question surrounding the Wildcats going into postseason play is the health of Reid Travis. Travis has missed five consecutive games with a knee sprain, and while the Cats went 4-1 during that span, they certainly did not look as dominant without the senior graduate transfer.
John Calipari has said that Travis will likely play in the SEC Tournament off the bench, and see limited minutes on the court. The Kentucky players have stated that he has looked good in recent practices.
If Travis plays and is close to 100%, that vastly changes what Kentucky can do and what their matchup with Alabama will look like. A victory on Friday will likely result in a rubber match against Tennessee Saturday afternoon.
The Wildcats can get past the Tide without Travis playing big minutes, though it would be nice to have another big to bang with Alabama star Donta Hall, who had a double-double (11 & 10) in the first matchup.
And it’s hard to the Cats beating the Vols in a potential Saturday matchup unless Travis playing and helping contain SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.
For much of the first half of Kentucky’s season, the three-point defense was a major weakness that allowed teams like Seton Hall and Alabama to upset the Wildcats.
But as SEC play rolled on, the Cats began locking down the perimeter, so much that it looked like it could be a strength of this team heading into postseason play.
They had a bit of a hiccup vs. Arkansas and Tennessee, who combined to shot 18/44 from deep, good for a 41% rate.
But the Wildcats clamped back down and held Ole Miss to just 8/25 shooting from deep, a meager 32%. They then held the Florida Gators to a putrid 3/18 performance from downtown, so it’s safe to say they ended on a high not defending the arc.
To get revenge on Alabama, Kentucky will need to stifle the Tide’s three-point shooters. They hit 10/24 from deep in the regular-season finale vs. Arkansas, then hit 7/16 vs. Ole Miss. That’s a combined 17/40 shooting, good for a 43% clip. In the first matchup, Alabama converted 10/23 from deep.
If Kentucky locks down the arc, they should win comfortably on Friday.
Herro away from Rupp
It’s no secret that Tyler Herro has played some of his best basketball when away from Rupp Arena. He averaged a team-high 15.5 points per game on 50.5% shooting in UK’s 10 road games this season.
That includes 24 points in a 71-58 win at Louisville, 20 points in an 82-80 win at Auburn, 20 points in an 80-76 win at Ole Miss, and 19 points in a 65-54 win at Florida,
Herro finished the regular season with a 14.2 scoring average, the second best on the team on 46.5% shooting and a team-high 53 three-balls. Kentucky was 17-0 this season when he scored 15 or more points.
Herro’s scoring has been more critical since the Travis injury, as that’s made it harder for PJ Washington to get going in the paint. Even if Travis plays Friday, it will likely be in limited spurts.
That’s why it’s imperative Herro has another solid scoring day for the Wildcats to win their first game in Nashville.
Kentucky Wildcats vs. Alabama Crimson Tide
When: March 15th at 7:00 pm EST
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN
TV Channel: SEC Network
Live Online Stream: You can stream the game online or on a mobile device using WatchESPN.
Radio: Tom Leach and Mike Pratt will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM and 98.1 FM in Lexington or online at UKAthletics.com.
Odds: Kentucky opened as a 12.5-point favorite. Massey Ratings projected Kentucky to be favored by 11. KenPom projected it to be an 11.5-point spread. ESPN gives Kentucky an 88.1% chance of winning.
Score Projections: KenPom projects Kentucky to win 76-64. Massey is going with a 74-63 win for the Cats.
Prediction: Kentucky already has plenty of motivation with a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament on the line, but now, revenge will be a factor after that debilitating loss in Tuscaloosa.
Final Score: Kentucky 73, Alabama 65