Alabama, 17-11 overall and 10-6 in SEC games, will take on Kentucky at 2:15 p.m. CST Friday at the Gaylor Center in Nashville in second round tournament action. As one of the top two seeds, Bama had a first round bye and was idle Thursday.
Kentucky made it past first round opponent Ole Miss, 71-57, on Thursday, the first time the Wildcats have had to play on the first day of the tournament since the event was resumed in 1979. The Cats had a bit of a tough time, trailing 29-26 at halftime, but Randolph Morris, who was given a curious NCAA ruling that allowed him to play basketball this year, had 17 points to lead Kentucky to the easy win.
Alabama was certainly among the surprise teams of the SEC this year. And so was Kentucky. Although it was well known the Wildcats had lost some talent, Kentucky still has more prep All-America players than any two or three other top SEC teams combined. The surprise in the Bluegrass State is that Kentucky struggled to a 19-11 record and 9-7 SEC mark.
Alabama, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise, at least after losing top player Chuck Davis in the opening game of the year. Bama lost that home game to lowly Ole Miss, but went on to win 10 of its next 15 games.
Included in those ten wins were some particular surprises, and the first came on January 14 in Lexington. Bama went into Rupp Arena and upset Kentucky, 68-64, despite a great game by the3 Wildcats' Morris.
Alabama has been one of the most successful SEC teams against Kentucky, but that doesn't mean the picture is a good one for the Crimson Tide. The Wildcats have an all-time record of 94-34 against Bama.
Mark Gottfried is 4-4 against Kentucky as Bama's head coach, although this year's win broke a three-game losing streak to the Wildcats.
Alabama is coming off a disappointing loss to Mississippi State to end regular season play. Bama fell to the Bulldogs in Starkville by 71-58. (In the SEC Tournament opening game, South Carolina eliminted Mississippi State, 59-44.)
The winner of the Alabama-Kentucky game will play in the semifinals at noon Saturday, probably against Tennessee, which plays South Carolina at noon Friday.
Alabama's tough non-conference schedule as well as its SEC success has virtually every bracket projection with the Crimson Tide in the NCAA Tournament. But Gottfried is taking a cautious approach.
Gottfried said, "If we've done enough already, good. But we need to play with the mindset that we need to win to make the (NCAA) Tournament."
Alabama played three games in six days (wins over Florida and Auburn as well as the loss to MSU) before starting the tournament. Gottfried acknowledged that the bye was important. He said, "It's good for us to have an extra day. Our team needs a little bit of rest. I think it's important for us to get our legs back underneath us." Bama took Sunday and Monday off before beginning preparation for the tournament.
Gottfried said he thinks any one of a number of teams is capable of winning the tournament and the automatic NCAA Tournament berth that goes with it, but Western Division champion LSU is the clear favorite.
Tide guard Ron Steele, who was named All-SEC first team this week, said, "What we did in the regular season doesn't really matter. Everybody is zero-zero and we've got a new chance to win a championship. It's an exciting time because we've got a new start. Everything we did in the past doesn't matter but we feel like our chance is just as good as anybody's. So we look at it as a new beginning, so we're excited."
In addition to Randolph's 17 points, the Wildcats got 14 points from Patrick Sparks. Sparks is best remembered by Alabama as a three-point bomber, but he was only 2-6 on treys and made 4-5 on two-point field goals against the Rebels. Joe Crawford and sub Ramel Bradley had 11 points each.
In addition to Steele, who averages 13.8 points and 4.1 assists per game, the Tide has another first team All-SEC player in Bama's leading scorer, 6-10 center Jermareo Davidson (14.1 points, 9.0 rebounds per game). Richard Hendrix, a 6-8, 265-pound forward was All-SEC Freshman team as he has averages of 9.6 points and 8.0 rebounds. The Tide starting lineup is rounded out by senior 6-9 forward Evan Brock (4.0, 2.8) and freshman point guard Brandon Hollinger (2.4).
Davidson had 28 points and eight rebounds in the win over Kentucky.
Alabama has only seven scholarshipped players available. Off the bench will be All-SEC Freshman Alonzo Gee (9.0 ppg) and exciting wing player Jean Felix (9.7 ppg). Both are streaky on offense and tenacious on defense.