By LARRY VAUGHT
First-year Alabama coach Avery Johnson called Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray both “first team all-SEC caliber players” Monday when discussing his team’s game with Kentucky Tuesday night.
“Ulis, obviously, could be in the conversation for player of the year, and they’re just two tough guys to guard on the perimeter. Kentucky really leans on them for most of their point production, so we have to do a really great job defending their backcourt,” Johnson said.
But he said he would not overlook Isaiah Briscoe.
“Isaiah Briscoe hurt us a little bit (12 points, four assists) with his penetration in our first game here, so we have to do a good job of guarding his penetration and try to do a great job of defending the backboards because Kentucky is one of the better offensive rebounding teams,” Johnson said. “They’re big and long and have some experienced guys in the front court.”
Kentucky won 77-61 at Alabama Jan. 9 when Murray had 21 points and Ulis had 8 points and 8 assists. However, UK also got 25 points and seven rebounds from Alex Poythress, who is not expected to play in tonight’s game.
“They’re playing a totally different lineup than when we played them. They’re shooting a ton more 3s then when we played them, so they’re a totally different team,” UK assistant coach Tony Barbee said Monday. “Shannon Hale, who’s a fantastic player, wasn’t playing particularly well at that time when we played them, and now he’s a guy that they’re going through offensively.
“Obviously Retin Obasohan is the straw that stirs their drink, but Shannon Hale is a guy who has really sparked them in the run that they had because of the level that he’s playing at.”
Hale was just 1-for-9 from the field against UK the first game. Obasohan had 21 points and impressed Barbee.
“You go strength, you go athleticism, you go speed, you go quickness, you go skill level and ability to handle the ball and go anywhere he wants on the floor off of the dribble and finish and create fouls off of bigger guys. Now he’s seasoned,” Barbee said. ”
“He’s been doing it for four years and he shoots the ball off the bounce, off the catch. He’s one of the better guards in our league, if not the country.”
Count Barbee as a Johnson fan, too.
“Anytime you have a new coach come in players have to learn the system and they struggle early to figure out their roles and what he expects. And now you see him very, very comfortable with what he wants to do and how he wants his team to play,” Barbee said.
“They’re guarding at a high level. They rebound at a high level. They’re a physical team; as physical as any team in our league. Now offensively, you can really see them comfortable in their roles, where he wants them to score, how he wants them to score and that’s where you see a guy like Hale, who’s gotten more comfortable in his system and is really starting to blossom.”
Calipari says Alabama is playing as well as any team in the SEC. But Kentucky is a 13-point favorite despite playing its third game in six days and with a depleted roster.
“They’ll be fine. Alabama is a good team. They’re physical, the get up in you, they have good post presence. Whether it’s the third game in six days or eight days, it doesn’t matter. They’ll still going to be there. We didn’t do much yesterday other than mostly film and script a few things. Probably practice today for an hour and 15-20 minutes, and get ready for a tough ball game,” Calipari said Monday.