A lot of time the sport of basketball is very simple. We can use analytics or focus on the tons of stats that are used in an individual game. There are obviously effort plays that need to me made and fouls can play a huge part on any individual outcome. But more times than not, it is a make or miss game.
Entering the 152nd meeting between the two programs, Alabama was the team with multiple 40-plus percent three-point shooters and a team that is one of the top scoring offenses in the sport thinks to high octane tempo. While Kentucky was a team that has been having major shooting issues despite a roster littered with former five-star prospects. Despite all of that, it was Kentucky's perimeter makes and Alabama's perimeter misses that allowed the Wildcats to reach 3-0 in SEC play.
Kentucky put up 76 points in 74 possessions and that was good for a not great 1.03 points per trip. The Wildcats were a woeful 19 of 48 from two-point range and scored just 20 points in the paint. However, UK got some more hot shooting from Immauel Quickley and all of a sudden the sophomore is shooting 41.9 percent from beyond the arc.
No. 5 scored 19 points on 10 shots while hitting 5 of his 6 three-point attempts. In SEC play, Quickley is shooting a wide hot 70.6 percent on 17 shots as UK is currently the best three-point shooting team in SEC play. The offense has desperately needed floor spacers this season and that is what Quickley is providing this team. In the biggest possession of the game, John Calipari called his number out of the timeout and he delivered.
Playing next to Quickley, Ashton Hagans had a very productive day with a stat line that included 15 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 turnovers and 3 steals in 36 minutes. Despite those numbers it felt like it wasn't his best effort. Kentucky got off to a very slow start on offense with a ton of dead ball turnovers and that turned into 14 giveaways (9 in the first 2o minutes) against a team that simply does not force turnovers. No. 0 sets the table and when he plays well everyone else follows. Despite not having his best game, he is still consistently bringing it every night and that is exactly what you want from your point guard.
Tyrese Maxey's streakiness and high volume play continues with the freshman putting 13 points on 17 shots. That is very inefficient. The dynamic combo guard is now shooting just 50 percent from two-point range and 28.1 percent from deep. When he is not on, Kentucky needs to weather the storm and have the other pieces around pick up the slack.
Nick Richards recorded his third double-double in four games with the big man scoring 13 points to go along with 11 rebounds with a large offensive board in crunch time. EJ Montgomery also contributed 8 points as both players were able to hit multiple mid-range jumpers to allow the Wildcats to build a double-digit lead in the first half.
Despite not being able to get much in the paint, the Wildcats made the Crimson Tide pay with nine three-point makes. That combined with the first half mid-range jumpers were really the story of the game. Alabama came in with a good defensive game plan, but when the perimeter shots are falling there's not much else you can do.
Kentucky allowed 67 points on 74 possession for a very, very good 0.91 points per trip. Alabama entered this contest having scored at least 90 points in five consecutive games and averaging 11 three-point makes per game. At Rupp Arena, UK held the Tide to its lowest scoring output of the season which included just four three-point makes.
The Tide shot a very ugly 19 percent from downtown and were just 43.6 percent from inside the arc. Kentucky did a very good job guarding without fouling while consistently running Alabama's shooters off of the three-point line. Leading scorer John Petty, who was shooting over 50 percent from three on 90-plus attempts, needed 15 shots to get 16 points and only hit three treys. Outside of Petty, the Tide were just 1 of 13 from deep. Where they were able to hang around was on the glass.
In the first half, Bama grabbed 12 offensive rebounds and scored 10 second chance points. In the second half, they were limited to just four offensive rebounds and that was a key turning point in the game. Due to the perimeter players struggling, it was a big opportunity for Herbert Jones. The 6-foot-7 wing hoisted up 20 shots in the game and that is exactly what Kentucky wanted. The slashing athlete is a non-shooter who can struggle in the half court. He was able to get five offensive boards, but Alabama using him as their top usage option was a big win for Kentucky.
Due to their size, Bama had a lot of shots challenged at the rim and Nick Richards was there to help alter shots. His five blocks were his second highest total of the season.
Despite being in a close game for most of the night, Alabama was never really in position to put the Wildcats in a lot of danger. UK held the lead for nearly 38 minutes and the Tide never got closer than three points in the second half. In the game there were only two ties and two lead changes thanks to some very good defense. Kentucky was able to severely limit the burstability of Alabama because they are a team that lives and feasts off of three-point makes. That meant that Kentucky was able to play very comfortably with a lead.
Thanks to UK's strong free throw shooting and stellar guard play, that should make them one of the best teams in the country at protecting leads. Turnovers to begin games have been an issue, but after the slow starts they settle down and really play efficient basketball. Being able to control the game is about as important of a skill you can have when the it's a one-and-done tournament at the end of the season.
Kentucky has begun SEC play with three consecutive wins four other times under John Calipari (2010, 2012, 2015, 2017) and each of those seasons saw the Wildcats win the SEC regular season title and make at least the Elite Eight. Each of those teams was a legit national championship contender and the hope is that Cal's 11th team in Lexington can also reach that tier.
There have been a couple of bad losses to this point in the season, but it's clear that the team has started to turn a corner in the last four games. Cal has shrunk the rotation and the perimeter shots are finally beginning to fall. Ashton Hagans continues to pace the squad with some excellent point guard play while Nick Richards is developing into one of the best fives in college basketball. Add in some big time scoring from Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley and UK all of a sudden has a very strong top four.
However, with the grind of SEC play beginning, you are going to have to win games in different ways. Against Alabama we saw Kentucky accomplish that against a team that wants as many possessions as possible. The Wildcats allowed the Tide to push the pace, but they forced them to win with twos. Meanwhile, Nate Oats wanted to shut down the paint and make Kentucky beat him with jumpers. They did just that.
It's a make or miss sport.
On to South Carolina.