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Kentucky basketball: Five things about the Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama guard Avery Johnson Jr. drives to the basket against South Carolina guard Rakym Felder in Bama’s 90-86 four overtime win on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2017. Johnson scored a career-high 23 points in the win.
Alabama guard Avery Johnson Jr. drives to the basket against South Carolina guard Rakym Felder in Bama’s 90-86 four overtime win on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2017. Johnson scored a career-high 23 points in the win. Associated Press

Kentucky makes the trip to Tuscaloosa on Saturday to face Alabama, so here are five things to know about the Crimson Tide:

1. Alabama is fresh off an epic four-overtime win at No. 19 South Carolina

The 90-86 victory on Tuesday was the Tide’s first road win over a ranked SEC team since the 2004 team won at No. 4 Mississippi State. Alabama led by 16 at the half after holding South Carolina to just 16 points in the first 20 minutes. Afterward, USC coach Frank Martin took the blame for the poor start, saying he had practiced his team too hard.

Alabama led by 12 with five minutes to go in regulation before the Gamecocks rallied to send the game into overtime. Bama trailed by seven points in the second overtime before rallying to force a third. Then the Tide won it in the fourth.

The win moved Alabama to 14-9 overall and 7-4 in the SEC, good enough for fourth place in the league. The victory came despite 44 points and 21 rebounds from South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell, who set an SEC record by making 25 of 33 free throws.

Avery Johnson Jr., son of the head coach, led Alabama with a career-high 23 points off the bench. Senior forward Riley Norris scored six points in the final overtime and finished with 14 rebounds. Ar’Mond Davis came off the bench to score 19 points.

The win came just three days after Alabama lost 82-77 to Auburn at home, the Tide’s third loss in its last five games. Bruce Pearl’s Tigers swept the season series with their in-state rivals after winning the first game 84-64 in Auburn on Jan. 21.

2. Avery Johnson appears to be turning things around

The 51-year-old New Orleans native and NBA veteran is in his second season as Alabama’s head coach. After playing collegiately at Southern, Johnson played 16 years in the NBA. He became head coach of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks in 2004 and coached the Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2005-06, where they lost in six games to the Miami Heat.

Johnson was fired after the Mavs lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2006-07 and 2007-08. He took over the New Jersey Nets in 2010 but went 24-58 and 22-44 in his first two seasons before being fired after a 14-14 start with the Brooklyn Nets in 2012-13. His NBA coaching record is 254-186, plus a 23-24 mark in the playoffs.

He took the Alabama job in 2015, replacing the fired Anthony Grant. The Tide went 18-15 overall and 8-10 in the SEC last year. It lost in the first round of the NIT.

In the off-season, Johnson added former UK player John Pelphrey to his coaching staff as associate head coach. Pelphrey, who served two tours of duty under Billy Donovan at Florida, had head coaching jobs at South Alabama and Arkansas. He worked in television last season after Donovan left Florida for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

This year, Alabama has played a tough schedule, and losing at home to Dayton and Clemson, on the road at Texas and Oregon and in a neutral-site game to Valparaiso, which lost to Kentucky at Rupp Arena earlier this year. Bama started 4-1 in the SEC before splitting its last three games in the league.

The Crimson Tide has lost six straight to Kentucky, including three games last year. UK won 77-61 at Alabama on Jan. 9 and 78-53 in Lexington on Feb. 23. The Cats then rolled the Tide 85-59 in the SEC Tournament.

Alabama’s last win over UK was 59-55 on Jan. 22, 2013 in Tuscaloosa. In fact, John Calipari lost his first two games at Alabama as the UK coach -- 68-66 in 2011 and then the 2013 game.

3. Alabama’s best players might still be in high school

With his outgoing personality and NBA background, Johnson has made plenty of inroads on the recruiting trail. In fact, Rivals ranks Alabama’s class of 2017 signees and commitment as No. 4 in the nation.

In the early period, Alabama signed four top-100 players, including Collin Sexton, a 6-foot-1 guard out of Mableton, Ga., who is ranked as the No. 7 best prospect in the class of 2017 by Rivals. It signed John Petty, a 6-5 guard out of Huntsville, Ala., who is ranked No. 28 by Rivals. It signed Herb Jones out of Moundville, Ala., who is ranked No. 71 by Rivals.

It also signed Alex Reese, a 6-9 forward from Pelham, Ala., who is ranked No. 89 by Rivals. And it signed Galin Smith, a 6-10 center from Mississippi who ranked No. 192 by the 247Sports composite.

It didn’t hurt that Johnson has forged a good relationship with football coach Nick Saban. In fact, Saban personally met with four of Johnson’s five early signees.

4. Alabama’s best player on this year’s team is Braxton Key

The 6-7 freshman from Charlotte played in Nashville and then at Oak Hill Academy before coming to Tuscaloosa as the 64th best player in the class of 2016, according to Rivals. Key picked Bama over Texas and Vanderbilt.

He leads Alabama with 11.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Key is shooting 43.3 percent from the floor, including 35.7 percent from the three-point line. He's a 62.6 percent free throw shooter.

Key has picked it up in SEC play, averaging 14.2 points and seven rebounds per game. He scored 26 points in Bama’s 80-60 romp over Georgia in Athens. He scored 24 points in the Tide’s 80-67 loss to Florida.

Johnson was hoping to have coveted recruit Terrance Ferguson alongside Key, but the 6-7 guard, who committed to both Alabama and Arizona, decided to skip college altogether. Ferguson is playing in the National Basketball League in Australia and New Zealand.

Johnson was able to add Corban Collins, a graduate transfer from Morehead. The 6-3 guard from High Point, N.C., averaged 11.5 points per game last year for the Eagles. He’s averaging 7.8 points for the Tide but is but shooting just 36.6 percent from the field.

Dazon Ingram, a redshirt freshman from Theodore, Ala., is second on the team in scoring at 10.1 points per game and leads the team in assists with 82.

Bola Olaniyan, a graduate transfer from Southern Illinois via Nigeria, is averaging 5.5 rebounds per game. He has double-digit rebounds in four games this season.

5. Alabama’s strength is its defense

Alabama is No. 61 overall in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. The Tide rank 157th in offensive efficiency but 23rd in defensive efficiency. Bama is 35th in offensive rebound percentage at 34.8. It is 250th in three-point defense at 35.9 percent, but 13th in two-point defense at 43.0 percent.

More numbers: Alabama is 37th in the nation in field goal percentage defense at 40.4 and tied for 52nd in scoring defense at 66 points per game. It held South Carolina to 26.1 percent shooting from the field.

On the flip side, Alabama has had trouble putting the ball in the basket. The Tide ranks 274th nationally in field goal percentage at 42.3. Bama has shot less than 40 percent in four SEC games this year: 31.7 vs. Vanderbilt; 39.7 vs. LSU; 32.7 vs. Mississippi State and 39.6 vs. Arkansas.

By the way, the Sagarin computer ranks Alabama 61st overall, with its strength of schedule at No. 56. Alabama is 1-4 against the Sagarin top 50, with the win coming against South Carolina. Bama is 56th in the RPI, with a strength of schedule ranking at No. 44.

Alabama men’s basketball 2016-17

Date

Opponent

UA

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

11/11

Coastal Carolina

70

53

W

1-0

 

11/15

Dayton

72

77

L

1-1

 

11/18

Ball State

77

59

W

2-1

 

11/21

vs. Valparaiso

60

68

L

2-2

 

11/23

Saint Louis

62

57

W

3-2

 

11/29

Charleston So

78

46

W

4-2

 

12/2

@Texas

68

77

L

4-3

 

12/11

@Oregon

56

65

L

4-4

 

12/15

S.C. Upstate

78

61

W

5-4

 

12/18

Clemson

54

67

L

5-5

 

12/21

vs. Arkansas St.

67

52

W

6-5

 

12/29

Stetson

83

60

W

7-5

 

1/3

@Miss. State

68

58

W

8-5

1-0

1/7

Vanderbilt

59

56

W

9-5

2-0

1/10

Florida

67

80

L

9-6

2-1

1/14

@LSU

81

66

W

10-6

3-1

1/18

Missouri

68

56

W

11-6

4-1

1/21

@Auburn

64

84

L

11-7

4-2

1/25

@Georgia

80

60

W

12-7

5-2

1/28

Miss. State

71

62

W

13-7

6-2

2/1

@Arkansas

68

87

L

13-8

6-3

2/4

Auburn

77

82

L

13-9

6-4

2/7

@S. Carolina

90

86

W*

14-9

7-4

2/11

Kentucky

     

2/15

@Missouri

     

2/18

LSU

     

2/23

Georgia

     

2/25

@Texas A&M

     

3/1

Ole Miss

     

3/4

@Tennessee

     
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