It was an hour after the team bus was supposed to leave for Blue Grass Airport in Lexington and Nate Oats was sitting exactly where he didn’t want to be — in a downstairs locker room in Rupp Arena.
Oats’ mood hadn’t exactly dropped to the basement level, nor was it howling like the wind outside, a gale that had the Crimson Tide’s charter flight waiting out what would have been roller-coaster conditions at best. Instead, like all coaches do in the wake of a tough loss. He was reflecting on a dozen individual plays — a missed defensive assignment here, a layup attempt that looked like a foul but didn’t draw a whistle. There were enough of those plays to make the Crimson Tide’s 76-69 loss to No. 14 Kentucky painful, particularly Oats’ one-sentence summation.
“Tough day to go 4-for-21.”
That was the final 3-point total for an Alabama team that had been hitting 3-pointers at an NCAA top 10 pace since Christmas. Some of it was the random luck that sees good shooters occasionally miss shots. Some of it was perhaps induced by the pressure of playing on front of 24,000 fans and the desire to do well, causing hurried shots. Some of it has to be attributed to the fact Kentucky puts very good athletes on the floor and John Calipari expects them to defend well.
“We gave the players a choice in practice this week,” Calipari said on the post-game press conference. “We didn’t want them just setting up and shooting 3’s. So we told the players that you can get out to them and make them dribble the ball or you can play them like this” — at this point, Calipari extended his arm in the classic ‘hey, coach, I’m playing defense’ pose — and let them shoot. I said ‘you can do either one, but if you don’t get out there and make them dribble the ball, I’m taking you out of the game. That’s your choice.’”
By taking that defensive approach and funneling Alabama’s drivers, especially Herb Jones on Saturday, directly at 6-foot-11 Nick Richards, Kentucky allowed some points at the rim — but nowhere near the 90-plus points Alabama had been scoring in the last five games.
It’s so early in the SEC season — just three games into an 18-game slate — that it’s not remotely fair to start evaluating where Alabama stands, especially since two of the three games have been at Kentucky and at Florida, perennially difficult places to play and, quite possibly, two of the four toughest games (along with road trips to Auburn and LSU) on the entire SEC schedule.
It will be easier to have a better perspective at the midway point of the league schedule. The eye test says some players are improving — the core of John Petty, Kira Lewis and Herbert Jones — but others as well. And for the last word, let’s go back to Calipari, not just for the usual winning-coach platitudes but for the sort of coaching analysis at which Nick Saban is so adept.
“What they are doing, I’ve never seen anything just like it,” he said. “They push it in transition but they are looking to shoot 3’s. What we teach on defense — what everybody teaches — is run back to the rim and protect against the drive. They can drive, especially with Kira Lewis, but even then, he will penetrate and they’ve got shooters around him. It was really hard to prepare for with just two days of practice.”
Any loss leaves room for improvement. Alabama can defend better than it did, especially in Saturday’s first half. There is still a need for a breakthrough win to fully energize a fan base that wants to believe. But the new system is slowly taking effect and was evident at times even against Kentucky.
One more 3-pointer — Jones appeared to be right on line from the corner on one that would have cut the Wildcat lead to one point — a couple more made free throws, a defensive stop. Chances were there — but, to quote Oats, it was a bad day to go 4-for-21.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt
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