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By LARRY VAUGHT
When Alabama coach Anthony Grant watches Kentucky on film, he sees an opponent that will be a major challenge for his team Tuesday night. “They’re an explosive offensive team, very talented and a diverse defensive team, so it’ll be a great challenge for our guys,” said Grant.
He says Kentucky’s balance is what makes the Wildcats explosive on offense.
“You look at it and they’ve got five guys averaging double-figure points for them, which is impressive. Their field-goal percentage is outstanding. They’ve got a good combination of inside-out in terms of their ability to score the basketball. Terrific in transition. Unselfish team. So I think they’ve got a lot of good pieces from an offensive standpoint,” Grant said.
Alabama is coming off a 50-49 win over Texas A&M. That’s the same team that came into UK and won behind 40 points from Elston Turner, who managed just 13 at Alabama after scoring only six points earlier in the week against Florida. Alabama struggled to score against Texas A&M, going through scoreless stretches of 9:54 and 2:36 in the first half and 6:50 in the second half. That was a total of over 18 minutes the Crimson Tide went without a point.
Alabama got a needed lift from guard Trevor Releford, who had missed the previous game with an injured ankle and didn’t start against A&M. However, he came off the bench to net 15 points in the second half on 5-for-6 shooting from the field. He got six points in the final four minutes for Alabama (11-6, 3-1 SEC) as the Tide won its third straight game.
“The tapes that I’ve watched, they really defend and their guard play is as good as anybody in the country right now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday. “Both guys are scoring the ball. Releford’s really scoring the ball of late and Trevor (Lacey) can shoot it with anybody. They still have (Andrew) Steele. Their guard play is why they’re 3-1 in our league. Defensively, they’re playing very physical. They’re doing some good things to scramble up the game in the press and running people at the ball and doing some great stuff. They’re a terrific team.”
Lacey, a sophomore, is an Alabama native that picked the Tide over Auburn and Kentucky. He’s averaging 12.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game and had 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and three blocks against A&M. Lacey hit a 17-foot jump shot with 8.3 seconds to go to put Alabama in front — he was 0-for-7 from 2-point range before that shot — and tipped the ball away on Texas A&M’s final possession. It was Lacey’s second game-winning shot this season as he also beat South Dakota State with a 3-pointer in the season opener. He is a 45 percent 3-point shooter.
“Trevor Lacey, as sophomore, has the benefit of a year and a half of experience in college basketball. I think he has really kind of understood what he needs to do for our team as the season has progressed,” Grant said. “I think he’s playing really good basketball for us. The other day he led us in scoring, rebounding, assists, just about every category. He did a great job and obviously hit a big-time shot at the end of the game to give us a one-point lead and come up with a deflection that led to a steal as well. I think with every game, I think he’s getting more and more comfortable in terms of what we’ve demanded of him.”
Senior guard Andrew Steele plays a key factor for Alabama.He missed seven games recovering from a sports hernia and the Tide went 2-5. However, Alabama is 9-1 when Steele has played with the lone defeat coming at then-No. 10 Missouri (Jan. 8).
“He’s a coach on the floor, so to speak. He does a great job of making sure our guys stay in the moment whether things are going really good or things are going really bad, and understanding what we’ve got to do and moving on to the next play, and that’s what you want to see out of your veterans,” Grant said. “He’s our only senior. He’s a fifth-year guy, and obviously having him in the rotation, I think, changes our team.
“From the time he was able to get healthy enough to get back to practice, he impacted our team from day one, and I think it’s been the same thing in games. He’s always going to do the little things in terms of screening, communicating defensively, that rotation that needs to be made. He understands that he’s going to make that, and I think his effort is contagious and I think it helps the other guys understand what will be required to give us a chance to be successful.”
He’s part of an occasional four-guard lineup that Grant uses (7-foot center Moussa Gueye started against Texas A&M but went scoreless for the fourth straight game). Even if Willie Cauley-Stein, who had minor knee surgery Thursday and did not play at Auburn Saturday, cannot play, the Wildcats will still be a bigger team than Alabama.
“For most of the games that we play in conference play we’re undersized, so I think for us it’s just about making sure that we bring a competitiveness to the court to try to match the size and the speed and the physicality they can put on the court as well,” Grant said. “Every game brings different challenge.
“I think looking at it on film, what stands out about them is they seem to have great team speed, explosive offensively. Defensively, they’ve got some game-changers in terms of the way (Nerlens) Noel can block shots. He’s one of the nation’s leaders in steals and blocked shots. And then the other guys on the floor from a defensive standpoint really give you a speed that not a lot of teams can come at you with.”
But Alabama is allowing only 59.1 points per game and is 10-1 when making at least eight steals in a game. The Alabama defense held the Aggies, who came into Saturday’s game leading the SEC in 3-point shooting, to 2-for-11 beyond the arc.