By: Jack O’Keefe
Spread: Kentucky -2
8:00 pm Central – Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY
Alabama Crimson Tide (9-3, 4-0)
Fresh off another National Championship for the Alabama football team, the basketball program looks to continue their successful season tonight on the road against Kentucky. The basketball team still has a long way to go to reach the level of dominance their football teams has shown this season; however, the Crimson Tide basketball team has been sky-rocketing up the rankings with each SEC win they earn it seems. After starting the season 3-2, with losses to Stanford and Clemson, it felt like this Alabama team was destined to hover around the .500 mark for most of the season. Following their close loss to Western Kentucky, something seemed to have “clicked” for the Alabama team. The Crimson Tide thrashed the East Tennessee State Buccaneers on December 22, which perhaps allowing them to go into conference play with a little confidence. The Crimson Tide are now 4-0 in conference play with wins over Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida and most recently Auburn. There are still many more games left on the docket, but for a team picked to finish fifth in the SEC Preseason Poll, they Tide are exceeding expectations.
The Tide lost their top scorer from last season, Kira Lewis, who elected to forgo his junior season as a means to declare for the NBA Draft. Not all was lost though for Alabama. The Tide had three of their starters from last season come back: Jaden Shackelford, John Petty and Herb Jones. Two transfers also have been added to the lineup for Coach Nate Oats: Jahvon Quinerly and Jordan Bruner. Four out of the five starters have averaged double figures this season, which can cause nightmares for opposing teams in terms of game plan preparations. Shackelford leads the team in scoring, averaging 13.1 points per game, while Quinerly (13.0 ppg), Jones (12.9 ppg) and Petty (12.4) are all right on his tail for scoring. As of now, experts are predicting Herb Jones to be the lone member of Alabama projected to be selected in the 2021 NBA Draft. Should Alabama make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, they may have more players selected. Regardless of the NBA Draft, Alabama is a balanced team with a group that knows how to play gritty team basketball. After all, can we expect anything less from a team coached by Nate Oats?
The Tide have been solid offensively this year, averaging 78.9 points per game (41st in Division-I). They sometimes fall in love too much with the three point shot, an area where they have not exactly thrived this season (32.2%; 211th in Division-I). Alabama is going to own you in the post though in terms of getting in good position for offensive rebounds. The Tide are averaging 11.2 offensive rebounds per game this season (37th in Division-I), which has certainly allowed the Tide to get second chance scoring opportunities. Gradually wearing down the opponent has been the main objective this season for Alabama. After battling for rebounds all game with their physical play, it should not be all too surprising that Alabama has one of the nation’s best second half points per game average (43.2 points; 15th in Division-I). Alabama has not been to the Sweet 16 since 2004, I think if they keep the level of play where it is at right now come March, this team may make it back to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Kentucky Wildcats (4-6, 3-0)
These are unprecedented times for Kentucky basketball. No, I am not just talking about the fact that they are playing games at Rupp Arena with only 15% capacity, but I am talking about the state of the basketball program. The Wildcats opened the season with a drubbing of in-state opponent Morehead State 81-45. The Wildcats then lost six in a row. Six? How is that even possible? Richmond. Kansas. Georgia Tech. Notre Dame. North Carolina. Louisville. The Louisville game seemed to be the “turning point” perhaps though for this season. The Wildcats fell short to the in-state rival Cardinals 62-59, a game that they were in striking distance to win. Maybe the Wildcats though have found their “swagger”, do not look now SEC, but Coach Calipari’s squad is 3-0 in conference play. The Wildcats eeked out a double-overtime win over Mississippi State, followed by a close finish against Vanderbilt. Make no mistake though about what happened in Gainesville last Saturday. Kentucky owned Florida and dominated the Gators from start to finish. The Cats had a lead upwards to 25 points, but they ultimately won the game by a total of 17 points. It was not a matter of if Kentucky would win this season, rather a matter of when this Kentucky team would start to gel together and rattle off a win streak like the one we are seeing now.
The Wildcats saw a familiar face return to the lineup on Saturday: Keion Brooks Jr. Brooks, who had been sidelined for most of the 2020-21 season with an injury, was certain on making a big impact when finally cleared to return to the lineup. He scored 12 points for Kentucky on 6-for-8 shooting. Not a bad first game back. Brandon Boston, Terrence Clarke and Devin Askew are the three freshman starters this season for Coach Calipari. Boston leads the trio in scoring, averaging 12.8 points per game. Clarke is averaging 10.7 points per game, while Clarke has been averaging 7.7 points per game. Alongside the three freshman in the starting lineup is a pair of transfers: Davion Mintz and Olivier Sarr. Mintz joins the Wildcats after a successful four-year career at Creighton, while Sarr comes aboard after spending three years with Wake Forest. Mintz is averaging 10.3 points per game this season and Sarr is averaging 11.2 points per game for Kentucky.
The Wildcats are not a sexy offensive team by any means. Kentucky is only averaging 68.5 points per game this season (212th in Division-I) and they are shooting 42.8% from the field as a team (210th in Division-I). The Cats are going to clamp you down defensively though, make no doubt about that. Kentucky is holding their opponents to 67.1 points per game this season (87th in Division-I), and they are limiting teams from having good shot selections as well (opponents shooting 40.5% from the field; 59th in Division-I). The Cats have had a block party in the post defensively this season as well, averaging 6.1 blocks per game (3rd in Division-I). Coach Calipari cannot be pleased with how the team started out this season with a 1-6 record; however, he has to see signs of greatness in this highly talented team with their recent win streak of three games.
Word on the street is Jahvon Quinerly might not be available for Coach Nate Oats this evening. He sat out for the Auburn game on Saturday, due to an “undisclosed injury”. We do not want to assume he tested positive for COVID-19, but speculation is going to lead me to that conclusion and assume he will not be available again tonight. You put a healthy Jahvon Quinerly in the starting lineup; the line would be Alabama -2 or greater. Whole body of work, I am giving the advantage to Alabama. They had a few bumps in the road against Stanford, Clemson and Western Kentucky, but they have certainly displayed signs of greatness in their wins. Kentucky is getting hot, which can spell danger for the rest of the SEC, but I am not 100% confident to back Cal’s Cats in a game against a potent opponent like Alabama. Kentucky might find their way in the NCAA Tournament, but I believe Alabama is a legit lock for the NCAA Tournament right now. I am going to take Alabama +2 as my best bet.
Jack’s 2020 CBB picks: (10-13)