It appears the Kentucky Wildcats may be turning a corner in this basketball season as they get set to host Alabama this Saturday inside Rupp Arena.
After losing three games through mid-December, including two in a row, many questioned whether this team could take a wrong turn toward the NIT. After watching the victory over Louisville and the first two SEC games, however, it seems the Wildcats are headed in the right direction.
Nick Richards is for real. He is averaging 13 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting over 69% from the floor and getting the fourth-most minutes on the team. Richards has shown sparks of domination before (see 2018 Bahamas), but this season it has been consistent and he does it in ways that we have not seen from him before. He catches tough passes in transition, gets timely offensive rebounds, and plays extraordinary defense even in foul trouble.
Tyrese Maxey is starting to figure out that his bread and butter comes from driving the basketball. He led Kentucky in scoring (alongside Richards) against Georgia on Tuesday while only attempting three shots from behind the three-point line. If he becomes the “get to the bucket” guy and Quickley and Sestina continue to shoot well from the outside, look out.
What can I say about Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley? They are veteran guards with complementary skill sets. They lead, they make big plays, and - Tuesday aside - make their free throws. They are the heart and soul of the team, and that is a very good thing looking ahead to March.
It is hard figure out how good Alabama is at this point. They have some very bad losses on their resume (Penn, URI, Iowa State), and while they have no big wins, they did play Florida into overtime and they decimated Mississippi State on Wednesday. They also nearly won on the road against a top-25 Penn State team before falling 73-71.
However, it is very easy to tell who they are. They shoot three-pointers, in bulk. Everyone. Guards, big men, assistant coaches, water boys. They will shoot it from deep at any point if they get a chance.
John Petty has made 50 of 99 three-pointers on the season. That is over 50% on a TON of attempts. For reference, Tyrese Maxey leads Kentucky in attempts from three with 61. Alabama has four players that have taken more attempts than Maxey.
Three of those four guys make their deeps shots at better than 33%. Jaden Shackelford has made 32 of 96 attempts for 33.3%. Alex Reese has made 24 of 69 shots for 34.8%. Kira Lewis, Jr. is near that mark as well as he has hit 32.9% of his 70 attempts.
The Crimson Tide are 2nd in the country in points per game and 2nd in three-pointers made per game at 11.1. If they come into Rupp Arena on fire on Saturday, anything can happen. When you get a team that plays this fast and shoots this many threes, it is difficult to predict the outcome. If they are cold, Kentucky wins big. If they are hot, it will be tough for the Wildcats to get a victory.
Nate Oats has his guys shooting the lights out. But John Calipari seems to have his team playing with a chip on their shoulder. The two will do battle at noon on Saturday in Lexington.
Alabama Crimson Tide (8-6, 1-1) at Kentucky Wildcats (11-3, 2-0)
Location: Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY
Game Time: 12:00 pm EST on Saturday, January 11th
TV Channel: ESPN
Announcers: Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas
Radio: Tom Leach and Mike Pratt will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM, 98.1 FM in Lexington, and on the UK Sports Network.
Online Stream: The game can be streamed online using WatchESPN.
Odds: ESPN BPI gives Kentucky a 80.9% chance of victory. KenPom gives them a 78% chance of victory.
Score Projection: KenPom projects an 81-72 win for the Wildcats.