Kentucky vs. Alabama score: No. 13 Wildcats drop SEC opener for just the second time under John Calipari
The Wildcats, coming off huge wins against UNC and Louisville, dropped their third game of the season
But it's 10-3 for the Wildcats, who lost their SEC opener for just the second time in 10 seasons under John Calipari. A Tyler Herro 3-point attempt -- after a ragged but effective rally by UK -- fell short as time expired, giving Alabama a 77-75 win. It's the first victory for the Crimson Tide against Kentucky since January 2013.
Heck of a way to rev the juices for Tide honks in advance of Monday's national title game in college football.
For Bama, unquestionably its biggest win of the basketball season. With 17 more conference games to go, this at least starts speculation that the team can get back to the NCAA Tournament. The Crimson Tide now claim a 10-3 record to match UK -- and a win in what's the only scheduled meeting between the teams this season.
And how about what Avery Johnson has pulled off since taking over in 2015? He's 12-10 against top-25 competition in the past three-and-a-half seasons. In the 21 games prior to Johnson getting the job, Alabama was 0-21 vs. the top 25. That's a significant turning of the Tide.
If you're Alabama, you're inspired by the balance of the starting lineup. All five starters scored in double figures, and that includes 17-year-old Kira Lewis Jr., who could blossom into a top-10 SEC player in a year's time.
Kentucky is the story, though. It usually is. Grad transfer Reid Travis struggled, often running into hassles dealing with Alabama's physicality and limberness of its bigs. Because Travis wasn't his typical self and because forwards P.J. Washington and Nick Richards didn't have exceptional games, Kentucky's rebounding ineffectiveness was glaring in the second half. This is a team that ranked third in the country heading into Saturday's game in offensive rebound percentage.
It managed just six against Alabama.
It's not fair to say Alabama's athleticism was the reason for Kentucky getting dumped. UK handled an athletic UNC team just fine, and it's not like Louisville is lacking in that department either. Ashton Hagans, Kentucky's starting point guard, was good yet again.
Big picture: Saturday's result puts pause on the good pub and significant momentum Calipari's team had accrued in the past two weeks. There was the emphatic win in Chicago at the CBS Sports Classic three days before Christmas against ranked North Carolina -- the most important outcome for Kentucky so far. Then came the slick road win last weekend at Louisville. Very good. A victory to start league play, on the road, would have nudged UK back toward top-10 reputation.
That's going to have to wait. Alabama is a solid team, so this is not a time to worry for the Cats. But it is a sign and a reminder that this team is, rightfully, not expected to win the SEC title. For Kentucky, that's obviously an abnormality. The Wildcats entered Saturday as the No. 10 team in the NET rankings. (Alabama: 63.) A drop will come, and good opportunities will have to wait.
Things, seemingly, get manageable for UK in the near-term. Next up is a home game against overmatched Texas A&M on Tuesday, then another home opportunity next Saturday vs. shorthanded Vanderbilt. Those games -- unless they end in losses for Calipari -- aren't going to bring clarity on Kentucky's ceiling. In light of Saturday's loss, the next time Kentucky is going to have a resume-altering opportunity for the better won't come for two weeks: it's the road matchup at Auburn on Jan. 19.
That won't be easy, but Kentucky's built to play, run and tussle with Bruce Pearl's Tigers. That game starts what could be the most crucial three-game stretch of the remainder of the regular season for UK. After Auburn, Kentucky gets a home game vs. (12-1) Mississippi State and then another Rupp Arena opportunity against Kansas on Jan. 26 (yes, that's the scheduled end-of-January SEC/Big 12 game).
Kentucky was projected as a top-five preseason team by most. It's not that right now and not on the verge of breaking back into the top 10, let alone the top five. But try as we might to rule on Kentucky with almost every game it plays, our answers will have to wait until the end of January. The potential of this team isn't so hard to see. The quality of it, however, remains in flux.
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