Alabama officials wondered about the home-court advantage not being at an optimal level for Saturday’s game against Kentucky. With spring semester classes not starting until next week, Alabama students are not on campus.
Then there’s that football game on Monday. Alabama plays Clemson for the national championship. Alabama officials were happy. With that game in Santa Clara, Calif., rather than, say, nearby Atlanta or New Orleans, more fans might stay in Tuscaloosa and attend the Tide’s basketball game against UK.
“In a perfect world, we want to start (Southeastern Conference play) when our students are back. Sure,” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said Thursday. “But we have no control over that. We’ve tried to build ourselves on not making excuses and just not complaining.”
Alabama expects fans to come close to filling Coleman Coliseum. Even with a good number of spectators wearing blue, Kentucky can expect an opponent excited to play its Super Bowl (to borrow one of John Calipari’s favorite lines).
“Every game is like a playoff game,” Johnson said of the upcoming SEC schedule. “That’s what I love about this time of year. . . . Every game feels like single elimination.”
Alabama (9-3) sounded prepared for a high-stakes competition. Forward Donta Hall used the term “hard hat” more than once to describe how the Tide expects a game not for the faint of heart.
“Stuff getting real now,” he said Thursday. He quoted assistant coach John Pelphrey, the former UK player, to explain what he meant.
“Like Coach Pel says, we’re getting into shark-infested waters,” Hall said.
As for Kentucky, associate coach Kenny Payne suggested that road games are the “true test” of a player and team. Of course, Kentucky passed its first and only such test so far last weekend by winning at Louisville.
“As a player, I wanted to have better games on the road than I did at home,” Payne said. “I hope we teach these guys that. Because playing at home is one thing. But if you’re going to be a championship team, you’ve got to go into the other team’s home and beat them. Find a way to beat them. And it doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be a ‘W.’”
The game’s most intriguing matchup may involve the freshman point guards who each re-classified in high school in order to get to college a year earlier.
Ashton Hagans has emerged as a catalyst and tone setter for Kentucky. Payne cited improved conditioning as a factor in Hagans’ emergence.
“The job he did on the kid for North Carolina (Coby White) was unbelievable,” Payne said. White, also a freshman, made three of 10 shots and had twice as many turnovers (four) as assists (two). Hagans made a school record-tying eight steals in that game.
Payne also saluted Hagans’ play at Louisville, which included a team-best three steals.
“He’s had a major impact on what we’re doing,” Payne said. “And the scary part is there’s 50 percent more in him.”
Alabama point guard Kira Lewis Jr. is pretty scary himself. He’s the second youngest player in college basketball. He won’t turn 18 until April 6. (Everett Perrot of Pepperdine is the youngest player. He turns 18 on April 12.)
Lewis, who did not arrive on campus until the start of the fall semester because he needed to complete high school classes in the summer in order to graduate, leads the Tide in scoring (15.0 ppg) and assists (3.2 apg).
“He really doesn’t have any stage fright,” Johnson said of Lewis. “He just comes in and does what he has to do every day.”
No matter how well he plays, Lewis figures to be on Alabama’s team for two seasons. NBA rules require a player to turn 19 the calendar year of the draft. Lewis is not eligible for this year’s draft because he will not turn 19 until 2020. (By the way, Hagans turns 20 on July 8.)
Kentucky knows about Lewis, the only freshman among Alabama’s top 11 scorers. UK showed recruiting interest in the player from Meridianville, Ala. “He’s going to be a handful,” Payne said.
When asked about a player so young being so impactful, Payne said, “It just goes to show there’s talent out there. And once they get in environments that are conducive to them personally, they thrive.
“He plays confidently. You look at him, you’d never think he was a freshman. He’s controlling the game with poise. He’s been patient. He’s putting a team of veteran players sort of on his back.”
No. 16 Kentucky at Alabama
When: 1 p.m. EST
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 10-2, Alabama 9-3
Series: Kentucky leads 112-37
Last meeting: Kentucky won 86-63 on March 10, 2018, in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament at St. Louis.