Sidelines with John Clay

Three things from Kentucky basketball’s Alabama preview

Kentucky forward Derek Willis (35) was helped off court after an injury in the second half and overtime of the Kentucky at Texas A&M mens basketball game at Reed Arena in College Station, Texas, on Feb. 20, 2016. The Aggies beat UK 79-77 in overtime.
Kentucky forward Derek Willis (35) was helped off court after an injury in the second half and overtime of the Kentucky at Texas A&M mens basketball game at Reed Arena in College Station, Texas, on Feb. 20, 2016. The Aggies beat UK 79-77 in overtime. Lexington Herald-Leader

Assistant coach Tony Barbee filled in for head coach John Calipari at Kentucky basketball’s Monday media opportunity previewing Tuesday night’s game with Alabama.

Three things of note:

1. Derek Willis was on crutches. As the media waited to do the player interviews, the Kentucky forward came out of the training room on crutches with his right ankle visibly swollen.

It was not as swollen as the pictures that were circulating on social media over the weekend, but the ankle still didn’t look good, leading to a significant question as to whether the junior forward will be able to play on Tuesday night.

Willis managed just three points and one rebound before getting hurt on Saturday at Texas A&M, but played very well leading up to the Texas trip. He scored a career-high 25 points in the Thursday win over Tennessee. Through one four-game stretch, Willis averaged 12.2 points and 10 rebounds per game. On the season, he’s averaging 7.8 points per game and has made at least one three-pointer in 12 consecutive games.

2. Alabama is a changed team. Kentucky beat the Tide 77-61 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 9, but Avery Johnson’s team has changed a lot since then.

Bama was on a five-game winning streak before losing to Mississippi State 67-61 at home on Saturday, the Tide had won five straight -- winning 82-80 at Mississippi State; beating Missouri 80-71 and Texas A&M 63-62 at home; winning 61-55 at Florida and 76-69 at LSU.

“They’re playing a different lineup,” Barbee. “They’re starting a totally different lineup from when we played them. They’re shooting a ton more threes than when we played them. So they’re a fairly different team.”

Alabama made just seven of 24 three-point attempts in the loss to UK in January.After that, the Tide hit 13 of 28 threes against South Carolina, 10 of 25 against LSU, 11 of 29 at Mississippi State.

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama started Michael Kessens, Jimmie Taylor, Arthur Edwards, Justin Coleman and Retin Obasohan. There was only one change its starting lineup Saturday against Mississippi State. Riley Norris started. Coleman came off the bench.

A big difference, as Barbee pointed out, has been Shannon Hale. The 6-foot-8 junior from Johnson City, Tennessee, scored just six points and grabbed just two rebounds in the loss to UK. Since then, Hale scored 20 points against Tennessee; 16 in the win at South Carolina; 22 in the loss to Mississippi State.

“He’s a guy who they are going through offensively,” Barbee said.

3. Bracketology. ESPN Joe Lunardi recent his latest NCAA Tournament bracket projections on Monday. He continues to have Kentucky as a No. 4 seed, though in the South Region. Lunardi has the Cats playing No. 13 seed Stony Brook in Oklahoma City.

Lunardi also has Alabama in the tournament. He has the Tide playing Butler in a First Four game for the East’s 12th seed. Alabama is 16-10 overall and 7-7 in the league. It is really helped by its strength of schedule, 23rd in the RPI rankings. Bama is 41st in the RPI overall.

Lunardi also has Texas A&M (5th seed in the West), South Carolina (7th seed in the Midwest) and Florida (8th seed in the East) in the field.

No Vanderbilt, which he lists among his “first four out.” No LSU, which he lists among his “next out.”

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