TUSCALOOSA – Alabama isn’t a dominant basketball team, not even while riding a four-game SEC winning streak and sitting alone in third place behind unbeaten Florida and Ole Miss.
Kentucky isn’t dominant either … yet. The Wildcats certainly have potential, which they flashed at times in the first half of Tuesday night’s loss at sold-out Coleman Coliseum. But potential carries expectations, and unrealized expectations lead to frustration for head coach John Calipari.
Calipari wasn’t impressed with the quality of basketball played in Alabama’s 55-52 victory. He was impressed with the grit the Crimson Tide showed.
He almost sounded wistful as he looked at the stat sheet after the game. He read that Kentucky outshot Alabama 39.3 percent to 36.8 percent. He saw that Kentucky outrebounded the Tide 44-32, including 13-9 on the offensive boards.
“When I was coaching at UMass, I loved it when my team shot 34, 35 percent and we won,” Calipari said. “They shot 36 percent, 15 percent from the 3, got outrebounded by 12 rebounds – listen, folks – and won.
“I love that kind of game. It’s a gut game. Had nothing to do with anything else. Neither one of us played well. They gutted it. They had discipline at the end. We did not – and that sometimes happens with a young team.”
Ahh, those halcyon days at UMass, when his players weren’t literally head-and-shoulders bigger than everybody else, when hustle plays were a requirement just to stay close, when a good coaching move here or there could actually steal a game.
As the coach of Kentucky, Cal doesn’t play in those games anymore. Now, if a team as talented as his own wins, it’s because they’re simply better than the other guy. And if it loses – which it has done six times already this season as the “defending national champion” – it’s the coach’s fault for not getting the most out of his team.
There is a price to pay when you coach at Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina or UCLA. Seems to me that price is fun or just the enjoyment of bringing a team along. And when you use Cal’s model of primarily one-and-done athletes, the timetable is so much more compressed.
By contrast, Alabama coach Anthony Grant can at least smile at the progress his team has made. The lessons that Andrew Steele learned the hard way in his first four seasons at Alabama are paying off for the fifth-year senior. Last year, Alabama’s freshman guards – Trevor Lacey, Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph – weren’t experienced or consistent enough to beat Kentucky down the stretch.
Tuesday night, despite an off night from two of those three – Lacey, who left the game with cramps in both calves after a scary collision under the basket, and Cooper were a combined 4-for-20 from the field – Alabama held off the Wildcats.
In this four-game winning streak, the Tide has rallied from halftime deficits three times. This is still a very young team – Steele is the only senior – but it is mentally tough.
“To be able to win speaks volumes about the character of our guys and the resiliency of our guys,” Grant said after the game.
But when he read the stat sheet and saw the same numbers Calipari talked about, he didn’t think of “winning ugly.”
“There are a lot of things for us where we can get better as a team,” Grant said. “What we’ve got to do is continue every day to work on improving as a team. We’ve got to understand that it’s never as good as it seems and never as bad as it seems. I think we can still get better as a team.”
But beating Kentucky – and cutting the series record between the schools to 102-37 – was a good way to keep its momentum going in the right direction.