The Kentucky Wildcats are perennially one of the college basketball’s most interesting teams due to the yearly infusion of top recruits that head coach John Calipari lures to the program. This year is no different. The Wildcats signed the nation’s second-best recruiting class behind Duke according to 247 Sports. As we’ve seen in the past, these young teams will sometimes struggle come January and February as they continue to learn how to play with each other and within Calipari’s system.
That’s the case this year with the Wildcats having dropped three of their last five games. The defense has been the culprit throughout much of the year, allowing 74.3 points per game (242nd in D1). Coming off a win against LSU on Tuesday night, they look to continue building momentum when they travel to Tuscaloosa for a date with the Crimson Tide. The game can be seen live on CBS with a 1 p.m. ET start on Saturday.
To get a breakdown of the matchup, we caught up with CBS Sports college basketball analyst Steve Lappas.
CBS Local Sports: Kentucky is always a younger team. This year, they’ve struggled in the last couple of weeks, losing three of their last five games. Is this just part of the learning curve for the freshmen? Or is it a sign of a deeper problem with this team?
Steve Lappas: There are bigger issues right now. The issue is they’re not defending at all. They were up big in that game against LSU, but their defense really fell apart. They gave up 85 points to a team that had lost 10 games in a row. The big concern with Kentucky right now is what they’re doing defensively. That’s what John Calipari has to get straightened out. This team can really score, we know that. The freshmen are terrific, but a lot of times freshmen don’t understand the urgency of having to play great defense. Right now, the reason that this Kentucky team is not a team that we’re thinking about as a national title contender is the defense. I’m not saying they can’t win a national title because they certainly have the potential. But they’re going to have to straighten out their defensive problems…
CBS Local Sports: Alabama, on the other hand, has struggled on the offensive end. They’re ranked 168th right now in the KenPom offensive efficiency rankings. What has been the biggest problem for this Tide team on offense so far?
Lappas: Well, they haven’t shot the ball particularly well from three, and really, that’s what you have to have. Nowadays, it’s become so important to have multiple guys who can shoot the ball from three. Just having one or two guys, the really good teams have three or four guys that can do that. That’s the biggest issue for them. And, they have to not turn the ball over, especially when they play teams with good athleticism like Kentucky that can really make things hard on them.
CBS Local Sports: Malik Monk has been one of the most dynamic scorers in the country averaging nearly 22 points per game this season. How does Alabama go about trying to contain him this weekend?
Lappas: Well he’s obviously a hard guy to stop. Not only does he do a great job with coming off and using screens, but he’s terrific off the dribble, and he’s even better in transition. A big way for Alabama to try and stop Malik Monk is to try and slow the game down. The faster the game is, the more he’s in transition. And the more he’s in transition, the more difficult he is to find. It’s a lot easier to find a guy when the pace is slow. So slowing the pace down is going to be important for Alabama.
CBS Local Sports: If Alabama does slow the pace down to try and keep control of the Wildcats transition game, can they execute well enough in the half-court to take advantage of this porous Wildcats defense?
Lappas: Well, they’ve got to pick their spots. I’m not saying that they want to play total half-court basketball. They’ve got to try and get some easy baskets here and there in transition. That’s very important. But ultimately for them, they’re better off with the game being more of a half-court game. They do need to get some easy baskets, because they’ve been offensively challenged and they’ve been offensively inconsistent. So getting some easy baskets would be important. But they can’t make it a track meet.
CBS Local Sports: We’ve talked about some of the things that these teams need to do come Saturday, but what’s the biggest key for each team going into this matchup?
Lappas: The biggest thing for Kentucky is to speed the game up and make it more of an offensive game. The more points that are scored the less reliant they have to be on their defense, because it’ll be hard for Alabama to keep up with them.
For Alabama, it’s going to be execution and not having live-ball turnovers. The thing that Kentucky can do to you, even though they’re not great defensively, is turn you over because of their athleticism. Alabama has to avoid that.
CBS Local Sports: Which players are the biggest x-factors in this one?
Lappas: The x-factor for Alabama is going to be the point guard, Dazon Ingram. He’s going to have to be a guy who does a really good job of handling the ball and not turning it over. He doesn’t have a great assist-to-turnover ratio. He gets his share of assists, but he does turn the ball over. He’s going to have to be really careful in terms of not turning the ball over and being solid with it. For Kentucky, it’s De’Aaron Fox. Anytime you want to play good defense it starts with your defense on the ball, and he’s the point guard. He sets a great tone for that team when he’s able to stop the ball from penetrating.
CBS Local Sports: Final question for you, as we come down the stretch run of the regular season looking forward to March Madness, what are some of the biggest storylines you have your eyes on?
Lappas: One of the things that I’m keeping my eye on is Duke. Duke was the preseason favorite and a clear favorite to win the whole thing. They’ve obviously had injuries, and Coach K was out for a bit. Are they going to be able to get it back together? To me, that’s a big question.
The other question that I have is with Villanova. They’ve had a great year again. Are they going to be in a position to repeat? They only play seven guys, they lost their center from last year and haven’t really replaced him, yet they’re still having a great year.
Another story line to watch is who’s going to be player of the year? We’ve got Josh Hart, Caleb Swanigan and Frank Mason in a real close battle to see who the player of the year is going to be. Those are the three big ones.
A fourth story line would be: how wide open is the tournament going to be? Before the season started, we probably thought the Final Four was going to be four of about six teams. Now, is it six teams that could make it, or is it 26? That’s something that we’re going to find out.