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Five things to know about Alabama (SEC Tournament edition)

Alabama forward Bola Olaniyan, center, shoots over South Carolina guard PJ Dozier (15) and Maik Kotsar (21) during the first half of the Crimson Tide’s 64-53 win over South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, March 10, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Alabama forward Bola Olaniyan, center, shoots over South Carolina guard PJ Dozier (15) and Maik Kotsar (21) during the first half of the Crimson Tide’s 64-53 win over South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, March 10, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press

Five things to know about the Alabama Crimson Tide, Kentucky’s semifinal opponent on Saturday in the SEC Tournament.

1. The Tide is trending up in Music City

Avery Johnson’s team had lost three of four coming into the tournament, but on Thursday night it took apart Mississippi State 75-55 in a second round game at Bridgestone Arena. The Tide entered the tournament as the No. 5 seed. Mississippi State was the No. 12 seed. So aside from the margin, the result was not all that surprising.

But then the Crimson Tide knocked off No. 4 seed South Carolina 64-53 in Friday’s quarterfinal. Braxton Key led the way with 18 points as Alabama broke open a close game by scoring the final 10 points of the contest. The Tide shot 44.9 percent for the game in reaching its first conference tournament semifinal since 2013.

Alabama led the Gamecocks 23-22 at the half, then held off the Gamecocks in the second half. True, South Carolina made just 13 of 23 free throws for 56.5 percent, but USC coach Frank Martin gave credit to the Tide.

“If you’re going to play Alabama, you’ve got to have some dogs,” said Martin. “We had puppies today.”

2. Alabama is good at defense

As of Friday night, Ken Pomeroy’s numbers rank the Tide as the ninth-best team in the nation in terms of defensive efficiency. Alabama ranks 21st nationally in field goal percentage defense at 39.9 percent.

Bama hasn’t let up in Nashville. Mississippi State shot just 39.1 percent in that 20-point loss on Thursday night. South Carolina shot just 36.7 percent on Friday. In fact, as Alabama was putting the game away, the Gamecocks missed their final seven shots. Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC’s Player of the Year according to the coaches, made just five of 12 shots for Carolina.

Ken Pomeroy’s Top 10 defenses: 1. Virginia; 2. Gonzaga; 3. South Carolina; 4. Florida; 5. West Virginia; 6. Louisville; 7. Cincinnati; 8. Georgia Tech; 9. Alabama; 10. Kentucky

In its last seven games, the Tide has allowed just one team to score more than 60 points. That was LSU in a 92-70 Bama win over the visiting Tigers. Part of that stat belongs to pace. Pomeroy ranks Alabama at No. 298 in terms of tempo. But not all the numbers are because of slower play.

It should also be noted that Alabama also beat South Carolina on the boards 42-27. Bola Olanyian grabbed 10 rebounds in the win. Key had seven. Guard Dazon Ingram had six rebounds. The Tide claimed 12 offensive rebounds out of 32 opportunities for 37.5 percent.

3. Alabama is not (normally) good at free throw shooting

If you’ve forgotten, Alabama made just nine of 26 free throws for a ridiculous 34.6 percent in a 67-58 loss to Kentucky in Tuscaloosa on Feb. 11. Key was just four-of-eight from the foul line. Olaniyan, a graduate transfer from Southern Illinois, was one-of-six from the line. Donta Hall was two-of-five. Jimmie Taylor missed both his foul shots. You get the idea.

That wasn’t an aberration. Going into the post-season, Alabama ranked 332nd in the nation in free throw shooting at 64.5 percent.

9-of-26Alabama’s free throw shooting in Feb. 11 loss to UK

And yet, in the quarterfinal win over South Carolina, Alabama made 10 of its last 12 free throws and 15 of 21 for 71.4 percent for the game.

4. Alabama has lost seven straight to Kentucky

Avery Johnson is 0-4 against Kentucky since taking over the Alabama program last year. One of the four came in last year’s SEC Tournament when the Tide were blitzed 83-59 by John Calipari’s Cats.

In the only meeting between the two teams this year, Alabama actually outshot UK 45.1 percent to 43.5. Ah, but those missed free throws. And Alabama made just three of 14 three-point shots while Kentucky was three-of-15 from behind the line. Plus, Johnson’s club committed 16 turnovers compared to just four assists.

Kentucky led by as many as 18 points in the second half -- 42-24; 44-26 and finally 48-30 with 10:16 left. To the Tide’s credit, Bama didn’t give up. It cut the UK lead to 57-51 with 1:40 left before Derek Willis drilled a clutch three-pointer at the 1:17 mark to move the margin back out to nine.

Box score from first UK-Alabama game

Key, the 6-8 freshman from Charlotte, scored 21 points in a losing effort for the Tide. (Friday was the first game in which he led Alabama in scoring since that UK game.) Olaniyan grabbed 10 rebounds.

Malik Monk scored 17 for Kentucky. He made six of 15 shots, including two of six from three-point range. Bam Adebayo had 14 points and seven rebounds. Isaiah Briscoe scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. De’Aaron Fox was just three-of-12 from the floor and finished with seven points.

5. Could upsetting Kentucky move Alabama into the NCAA Tournament?

It wouldn’t hurt the Tide’s chances, of course, but the smart money says that Alabama would have to win the SEC Tournament to claim a spot in the SEC Tournament.

(My column from first UK-Alabama game)

Last night, anyway, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi did not have Alabama listed in his “first four out” or “next four out” of his bracketology categories.

Pomeroy has Alabama ranked No. 54 overall. Its 159th ranking in offensive efficiency drags the Tide down in his formulaics.

Jeff Sagarin ranks Alabama at No. 59. Using his numbers, Alabama has played the 65th-toughest schedule, but it is 0-3 against Top 25 teams and 2-6 against Top 50.

Alabama is just 83rd in the RPI with a strength of schedule rank at No. 84. In its ratings, Bama is 0-4 against the top 25 and 3-6 against the top 50.

A win over No. 8 Kentucky might change all that.

Kentucky vs. Alabama (SEC Tournament)

When: Saturday, 1 p.m. ET

Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville

TV: ESPN with Joe Tessitore, Dick Vitale and Kaylee Hartung

Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach

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

vsValparaiso

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

SC Upsate

78

61

W

5-4

12/18

Clemson

54

67

L

5-5

12/21

vsArkansas 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

58

67

L

14-10

7-5

2/15

@Missouri

57

54

W

15-10

8-5

2/18

LSU

90

72

W

16-10

9-5

2/23

Georgia

55

60

L

16-11

9-6

2/25

@Texas A&M

53

56

L

16-12

9-7

3/1

Ole Miss

70

55

W

17-12

10-7

3/4

@Tennessee

54

59

L

17-13

10-8

3/9

vsMiss St (sec)

75

55

W

18-13

3/10

vsS Carolina (sec)

64

53

W

19-13

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