Kentucky prepares to face tough road test at Alabama
For whatever reason there is a misconception that Alabama is not a good team this season. They have had a couple bad losses early in the year but they were short-handed and against good mid major teams. After losing Collin Sexton to the NBA draft the team may not be as good as they were last year but they are not nearly as far off as some fans and media members would have you believe.
Part of Alabama’s early struggles were due to injuries but the biggest part is that their star freshman point guard reclassified and is very young. Kira Lewis is a 6’3 point guard that was a 5 star recruit in the 2019 class before he decided to move to 2018 at the last-minute. He was being recruited by Kentucky before he decided to make the jump and it was a huge pickup for the Crimson Tide. With the loss of Sexton he has stepped in and provided them with another great lead guard. After struggling a little bit in the first four games he has picked it up and is playing very good basketball. He is currently averaging 15 points and 3 assists per game. He is shooting over 40% from the 3-point line but is also very good at drawing fouls and scoring from the free throw line, where he shoots 82%. Defending him will be the top priority for Kentucky to win the game. Ashton Hagans seems to be built for these kind of matchups so he will be put to the test on Saturday.
The Tide return almost their entire team from last season other than Sexton. That includes the sharp shooting wing John Petty who has not shot the ball as well early in his sophomore season. With that said, he is an exceptional shooter that can get red-hot at a moments notice. He was heavily recruited by John Calipari so there is no doubt that he is an elite player. He is averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds a game but can be turnover prone when pressured to drive the ball. The key is to avoid letting him get wide open looks from behind the arc. Donta Hall is their long and lanky rim protector that plays with great energy. He averages 11 points, 8 rebounds and over 2 blocks per game. It will be interesting to see how he matches up with the physicality of Reid Travis and PJ Washington. His length and quickness could potentially disrupt the Cats around the basket. Tevin Mack is a shooting guard with size that transferred from Texas and once led them in scoring. He is averaging 8 points a game and is a dangerous shooter. They also return Dazon Ingram who is averaging 8 points and 5 rebounds as a versatile forward that can do a little of everything. Riley Norris is another familiar name that recently returned from injury and scored 14 points while making 4 3’s in his last game. Add in Herbert Jones and Alex Reese who are both averaging over 7 points a game and Alabama has a very deep lineup with several dangerous pieces.
Avery Johnson is a good defensive coach and he has the Tide playing good defense again this season. They like to slow the pace down a bit so it will be interesting to see if Kentucky tries to get them to run. Historically it has never been a very easy road win for the Cats and that will likely be true on Saturday. It will be a sold out arena with the fans fired up to face Kentucky. At least the Cats have already faced that type of environment at Louisville last week. This game could be more of a trap for the young team because they may not be quite as up for it as they were for the Cards.
The keys for Kentucky will be Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro. I am confident in the production that Reid Travis, PJ Washington and Keldon Johnson will give but it is Hagans and Herro that can put the team over the top. Hagans has played very well over the last four games but he must continue to play that way on Saturday. Especially against another elite freshman point guard that he needs to slow down. Tyler Herro had his break out game against Louisville and it looks like he is really starting to get comfortable, but the Cats really need him to make shots and open up the court once again this weekend. As a team Kentucky needs to dominate the glass on both ends of the floor.
This team seems to have turned a corner but Saturday will provide a good test to see if they can get up for a less heralded team on the road. If they don’t get up for it they may end up heading home with a loss. I think that Kentucky will do enough to get the win but I think it is going to be a real struggle. I think it will be a very low scoring first half and the Cats may trail going into the break. The pace will pick up a little in the 2nd half and that will allow Kentucky to take the lead and come away with a close win 73-70. Winning on the road is never easy and that is especially true against teams capable of making the NCAA tournament. A win in any way will be a big success for the young Wildcats.