By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
NASHVILLE — Kentucky will get a rematch with Alabama when it opens play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Friday night at Bridgestone Arena.
The Crimson Tide (18-14) rallied from a 16-point deficit to defeat Mississippi, 62-57 Thursday night to keep their hopes alive for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama defeated Kentucky 77-75 on Jan. 5 in the conference opener for both squads. It will be the SEC Tournament opener for the fourth-ranked Wildcats (26-5), who finished second during the regular season and received one of four double-byes in the five-day event.
“It’s going to be a hard game for us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Thursday night. “They did beat us and did it in a physical manner.”
Calipari added the opening game in the postseason is always the toughest one for his squad.
“It’s a hard game,” he said. “I don’t care what league you’re in and who it is, what the records are because it’s 0-0 and now they’re 1-0. It’s a new season, it’s all different and again, the first game you play in all these tournaments is the hardest game.”
Alabama coach Avery Johnson improved to 6-0 in SEC Tournament openers but has lost three straight to Kentucky in the quarterfinal round.
“We’ve had some tough matchups against Kentucky,” Avery said. “Coming into the season, one of the things we talked about was we never had success against them in my four years here. That was a highly contested game.
“Now we’ll have another opportunity to see if we can play a hard-nosed, tough game, with a lot of discipline. Hopefully, our guys continue to pay attention to all the minor details. It’s just amazing how alert they’ve been in practice and even this morning in shoot-around. I think we’ll be ready to go. We know we’re playing against an awfully tough opponent.”
Kentucky senior Reid Travis is expected to return to the lineup after missing five games because if a knee strain. Travis practiced this week and Calipari said his defense and offense in the post will be a key against Alabama.
“It gives you a toughness (having him back) that we’re going to have to have, not just in this game, but in every game we play,” Calipari said. “If you’re not fighting, physical and tough at this point in the year, you’re losing. That’s just how it is.”
Calipari is eager to see how his team responds with Travis back in the lineup.
“Are in sync, is it going to change some of the stuff we’re doing?” Calipari said. “We will see. When the game starts, we will have a good idea.”
In the first game between the two teams, Calipari said the Wildcats missed “14-15 layups,” which led to the team’s demise down the stretch in Tuscaloosa.
“You can’t miss 15 layups and play a team like that,” the Kentucky coach said. “They shot the ball well, made shots when they had to. They’re a good team.”
Calipari expects the Crimson Tide to be even more motivated coming off an emotionally charged win over the Rebels, with a possible NCAA Tournament bid hanging in the balance. The Kentucky coach added motivation on his team’s behalf won’t be an issue the second time around.
“You look at everybody this time of year and everybody is fighting for their lives,” he said. “(The first game) was so long ago. I’ve watched a couple of times. … there were points in the game I thought we played well, and other points, I was like, how did we miss this or miss that. We had our chances and then they got us down and wouldn’t stop. It was a good win for them (against Ole Miss).”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Alabama, 7 p.m., Friday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.