MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) Alabama has rebounded nicely from coach Anthony Grant’s first losing season, with Levi Randolph moving into the starring role and two transfers helping fuel the turnaround.
The Crimson Tide (12-4, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) enters Saturday’s game with No. 1 Kentucky already one win from matching last season’s total and receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25.
The Wildcats (16-0, 3-0) are, of course, the ultimate measuring stick for SEC teams, even if that’s not how Alabama is trying to view the game.
”We’re just trying to take it as another game,” Randolph said on Friday.
Seldom chatty with the media, Grant was all business before the game in Friday’s news conference, which lasted a brief three minutes or so. He didn’t play up the importance of the matchup or the challenge facing his team.
He said the strategy against the Wildcats is ”play our game.”
Grant’s summation of Kentucky: ”They’re extremely well coached and they’re a very good team.”
Alabama is trying to prove it’s a very good team as well.
Randolph and transfers Ricky Tarrant and Michael Kessens have been big reasons for Alabama’s improvement from last season’s 13-19 team. Alabama had a six-game winning streak snapped with a 68-66 loss to South Carolina on Tuesday night.
The Tide, which is 47th in the NCAA’s latest RPI, missed potential game-winning 3-pointers at the buzzer in each of the last two defeats.
Randolph is having by far his best season, averaging 15.1 points and leading the team in assists and steals. He hadn’t averaged double figures scoring in any of the previous three seasons, mostly as a starter.
Transfers Ricky Tarrant (Tulane) and Michael Kessens (Longwood) have both played key roles after sitting out last season. Tarrant’s 13.3 points per game is second on the team while Kessens leads the Tide with 5.6 rebounds a game.
This is the first time in more than a decade a No. 1 team has visited Coleman Coliseum. Alabama beat Arkansas 66-64 the last time it happened on Jan. 8, 1994 and is 2-1 at home against top-ranked teams.
The Wildcats are coming off an 86-37 rout of Missouri after two straight SEC opponents took them into overtime. Now, they face another road game hoping those close calls help them deal with future tough spots.
”It’s a real big surprise, but we need games like that, close games,” Kentucky forward Dakari Johnson said. ”And it just showed that we can step up at those times.”
Wildcats coach John Calipari said the Missouri win allowed the Wildcats to ”get our swag back.” His team has already passed two closer-than-expected SEC tests.
”You win a tough game and you need tough games,” Calipari said. ”I told the guys. They know. I told them right after the game, `I don’t expect you to play like it’s March,’ and we’re not. Offensively we’re still not. We still have guys not playing the way they need to play for us to really be special.”