TUSCALOOSA — When James "Beetle" Bolden was deciding what sort of system he'd like to finish out his collegiate career playing in, the former West Virginia point guard couldn't shake the impression Nate Oats' Buffalo squad left on him following the Mountaineers' 99-94 overtime loss Nov. 9, 2018.
Now, three months into his final season, Alabama's graduate transfer guard and lone senior is seeing the fruits of that decision to join Oats' up-tempo attack in Tuscaloosa.
"I played (Buffalo) my first game last year at West Virginia ... and they played pretty fast and it was hard to guard them because they were constantly up and down the floor," Bolden said of Oats' former program on Friday. "So I knew what I was coming into and it's just like it seems."
Coming into the second week of Southeastern Conference play, what it seems like is the new-look Crimson Tide is riding high within Oats' attacking and wide-open approach, even as it readies for a difficult road test against the league's premier blue-blood program in No. 14 Kentucky.
“This is why you put in all the hours in the offseason in the gym, to play games like this. They’ve got some of the best players in the country, you know they’re going to have some of the best players every year,” said Oats, a first-year coach at Alabama. “But our guys are a pretty confident bunch. They feel like they belong in that conversation with some of the better players in the country. And there’s no better way to figure that out than on the floor.”
And there’s been plenty of reason for that sort of confidence with the Tide winning six of its last eight games heading into the meat of the league schedule.
Alabama (8-6, 1-1 SEC) enters Saturday’s 11 a.m. CT tip-off at Kentucky (11-3, 2-0 SEC) leading the league in scoring averaging 84.4 points per game this season and has scored 90 or more points in the last five consecutive games -- a first in program history.
For perspective, the Crimson Tide topped the 90-point plateau just once last season and has just 10 90-point games -- three that went into overtime -- in the last 12 years dating back to the 2008-09 season.
And against a potent Wildcats offense that has topped 80 points six times this season and ranks sixth in the SEC averaging 74.7 points per game, Alabama will undoubtedly need another high-scoring affair if it has any chance to pull off the rare upset in always-hostile Rupp Arena against John Calipari’s Wildcats.
“We’ve been scoring the ball pretty well, hopefully our guys have some confidence,” Oats said. “That’s one of the issues playing Kentucky all the time is can you actually score on them with their length and athleticism, and how hard Cal gets them to play. So I’m sure they’ll try to take Kira (Lewis Jr.) out and take JP (John Petty Jr.) out, but I think we can still get those guys some and we’re just going to have to get some other guys to step up and play as well.”
The Tide has certainly gotten more well-rounded efforts of late with six different players scoring at least 9 points in four of the last five games, and five straight double-digit scoring games from the sharpshooting guard trio of Lewis, Petty and freshman Jaden Shackelford.
In fact, Petty has individually topped double-digit scoring in 10 of Alabama’s last 11 games, averaging 19.2 points and 7.1 rebounds while making 4.3 3-pointers and shooting 56-percent from 3 during that span.
“I think guys are getting more used to the system, guys are getting more comfortable playing with each other,” Oats said. “And then we’re getting better (with our) transition (defense), there are little tweaks that you’re trying to get better at throughout the course of the year, but our transition D has gotten better, our rebounding has gotten better. Even though the numbers aren’t showing it, our defense is getting better and obviously we’re not turning the ball over (as much). … The last eight games our turnovers are down and that’s obviously helping us play better on both ends.”
Still just a sophomore, the 18-year-old Lewis has also elevated his game of late within Oats’ up-tempo system, further validating the NBA buzz with more well-rounded play averaging 16.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and just 1.8 turnovers over Alabama’s last four games.
Of course, facing off against Kentucky’s backcourt of NBA lottery picks in sophomore Ashton Hughes and freshman Tyrese Maxey will certainly be quite the litmus test for both Lewis and the entire Alabama basketball team looking to turn heads this season.
“This is what basketball’s about, playing against great players from all around the world,” Lewis said Friday. “They’ve got great players and future pros on their team, so it’s going to be a great matchup.”