Alabama's most important game of the season is just hours away.
The Crimson Tide (11-6, 3-1 SEC) hosts Kentucky (12-5, 3-1) tonight at 8 p.m. at Coleman Coliseum. The two teams are tied for third place in the SEC and are one game behind Florida and Ole Miss, who are tied for first with 4-0 records.
But the reason why a game against the Wildcats is the most important one isn't because they're the defending national champions. As Nick Saban would (probably) say, their current team didn't win anything because they have a completely different lineup than they did last season with players heading to the NBA early.
"Every game we play, to me, is the biggest game on our schedule," said Alabama head coach Anthony Grant. "We're certainly proud to be a member of the SEC, proud of them being able to win a national championship. But for us right now, we're competitors. Our mindset is we've got to prepare the best we can to win a game.
"Anything else that you guys want to put into it or any storylines that you want to write about, that's up to you."
Grant was asked if it's difficult to prepare for a team that has no continuity with as much roster turnover as Kentucky has every year with so many one-and-done's.
"We're 17-18 games into the season," he said. "We look at film of the game's they've played and our team is different from last year, too. If we were playing a November game, there'd probably be more of a difference there, but we're halfway through the season."
A key new face the Tide will get acquainted with quickly is 6-foot-10 freshman forward Nerlens Noel, who has drawn comparisons to former Wildcat and last year's Player of the Year Anthony Davis. Noel is averaging 4.1 blocked shots per game, 5.8 in conference games, and last year Davis was known for the same stat.
"But what's really impressive is the steals," Grant said.
Noel has 44 thus far, 10 of which have come in the four SEC games Kentucky has played.
"He's got great length, great hands and very good quickness for a guy his size," Grant said. "He does a great job of making up for mistakes that other guys have made and just making plays with his hustle and effort. The way he impacts the game is really impressive."
Another important player for Alabama to hone in on is sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer (also 6-10), who is averaging 11.3 points per game, but has scored 17 points in the Wildcats last two outings (against Tennessee and Auburn).
"He's diverse," Grant said. "Obviously everybody knows about his ability to shoot the basketball. What's impressive about him is the way he can pass the basketball. He gets his teammates the ball."
Alabama has gotten off to slow starts, the most recent being against Texas A&M where the Tide scored just 15 points in the first half. The Tide is also averaging more turnovers (13.1 per game) than assists (11.8), while Kentucky is averaging 15.7 assists and only 12.9 turnovers per game.
But despite the stats, UK head coach John Calipari is expecting a difficult matchup.
"This is a really physical, grind-it, bump-you, grab-you kind of team," he said on a conference call Monday. "If you're not ready for 50-50 balls, that you're going to be in a war on the court for 40 minutes, you've got to relish it. That's what you want. But if you don't want that, then it's an issue."
--Point guard Trevor Releford, who sprained his ankle last week, said he will be "good to go" against Kentucky. Releford missed the Tide's game last week against Mississippi State, but came back three days later to lead his team to victory over Texas A&M by scoring 15 points for the second straight game.
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