No. 7 Alabama set to face Kentucky at Coleman Coliseum

Mathey Gibson, Staff Reporter

Hello, primetime television. 

After defeating the Ole Miss Rebels 84-62 on Tuesday, Alabama basketball returns to the hardwood to take on John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats. 

The seventh-ranked Crimson Tide (12-2, 2-0 SEC) are riding the heels of a three-game winning streak behind the wings of freshman forward Brandon Miller, who is averaging 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists over his last five contests.  

For the Wildcats (10-4, 1-1 SEC), it’s been a mixed bag so far in 2022-23 – failing to find continuity on both sides of the ball as their new-look roster continues to gel at a slow pace.  

Leading the way for Kentucky is 2021-22 Naismith Award winner Oscar Tshiebwe, who is averaging 16.8 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 1.5 assists through 12 games. The SEC’s leading rebounder, Tshiebwe has recently drawn criticism for his laziness on the offensive end – a trait he must bury if the Wildcats are to find success versus Alabama’s frontcourt of Charles Bediako, Noah Clowney, Nick Pringle and Noah Gurley.  

“None of them are going to be as strong as Tshiebwe is,” Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats said on Friday. “Charles has to do what he does best for us and that is protect the rim and kind of anchor our defense. If he ends up picking a foul here or there, it is what it is.” 

A former High School teammate Rylan Griffen, it’s guard Cason Wallace who’s been the heart and soul for Kentucky in his freshman campaign.  

Standing at 6-foot-4 and 193-pounds, Wallace has emerged as one of the conference’s best – averaging 12.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game while playing a tough, defensive-centric brand of basketball and shooting 45% from downtown.  

Joining Wallace in the backcourt are Antonio Reeves and Sahvir Wheeler, a pair of smart, shifty, senior guards that are shooting over 39% from three-point land.  

Reeves, a former Alabama transfer target from Illinois State, is averaging 11.1 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists off of the bench in Lexington.  

Wheeler, a former Georgia guard and two-time All-SEC selection, leads the SEC in assists – dishing out 6.8 per game while averaging 9.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and shooting 40% from the floor.  

Coming into Saturday’s matchup, the Wildcats’ offensive metrics aren’t terrible on the surface – ranking 16th in adjusted efficiency, 4th in offensive rebound percentage, 44th in effective field goal percentage, and 12th in three-point percentage.  

Defensively, it’s much of the same story – ranking 44th in adjusted efficiency, 88th in effective field goal percentage, 63rd in block percentage, and 49th in two-point field goal percentage. 

While there’s plenty of encouraging signs, it’s the glaring holes that have caused issues for one of the nation’s premier blue bloods – standing at 300th in free throw percentage, 125th in two-point percentage, 139th in offensive non-steal turnover percentage and 293rd in defensive non-steal percentage. 

“They’re shooting the ball really well,” Oats said. “They’ve got a good team, I think. Honestly, I think their issues this year have been a lot more on the defensive end. I think they’ll probably be pretty motivated coming in here with what we’re ranked.” 

When discussing whether or not roles are reversed with Alabama’s top-10 ranking and the Wildcats’ unranked status, the fourth-year head coach was quick to defer. 

“That’s part of being at Kentucky,” Oats said. “If they’re not No. 1, I think their fans get a little restless – they’re spoiled. It’s probably like Alabama football fans, to be honest with you. We’re not in the college football playoff and everybody’s upset […] It’s still Kentucky. You’d have to do this year after year after year. I think people’s memory gets a little short. Kentucky’s Kentucky. They’ve been doing it multiple years, especially since Calipari took over.” 

Can the Crimson Tide push their winning streak to four? Perhaps, but likely not without a few desperate swings from a talented Wildcats team aiming to get back on track. 

Tipoff for No. 7 Alabama and Kentucky at Coleman Coliseum is set for Saturday, Jan. 7 at 12 p.m. CT on ESPN.   

Questions or comments? Email Blake Byler (Sports Editor) at [email protected]