No war of words between Oats, Calipari heading into Alabama at Kentucky
TUSCALOOSA, Ala., — There was no war of words Friday afternoon. Instead, Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats made sure not to deliver any unnecessary ammunition to No. 14 Kentucky ahead of the Crimson Tide’s matchup against the Wildcats on Saturday inside Rupp Arena.
“Listen, they’re a really good experienced group that we’re going to have to play really well to beat," Oats said with a smile. “So, that’s my comment on Kentucky this time. I’m sure Big Blue Nation will remember the previous one.”
The statement Oats’ is referring to occurred in 2018 when he was the head coach of Buffalo. Entering the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Oats criticized Kentucky head coach John Calipari for “whining” about the Wildcats’ lack of experience. Oats later clarified his remarks, stating that his comment was "no disrespect" to Kentucky while calling Calipari “a pretty dang good coach.”
Ultimately, Calipari got the last laugh as Kentucky trounced Oats’ Buffalo team 95-75. However, it doesn’t appear as though there was any hostility held over from the previous comments.
When asked about Alabama on Friday, Calipari said the Crimson Tide has done a “great job” under Oats, stating its record should be better if not for a couple of close losses. The Kentucky coach made note of Alabama’s double-overtime defeat to Florida in which the Crimson Tide blew a 21-point lead, stating “they should have never lost that game, and they know it.” He also pointed out that Alabama led Penn State on the road for most of the game before ultimately suffering a narrow loss.
“The games they lost early, they weren’t ready to play this style yet,” Calipari told reporters Friday, referring to Oats’ fast-paced style of play. “They hadn’t bought in. Now they have, and they’re — this will be a really hard game for us to win. I don’t care if it’s at home, on the road on I-95, this is a hard one to play, and it’ll be a hard game for us to win.”
Calipari continued to credit Oats and Alabama when asked if this year’s Crimson Tide team resembled the Buffalo team he beat in the tournament. The Kentucky coach said Alabama did not post up as much as that Buffalo team did but stated Oats was “coaching them the way that team needs to play.”
Alabama has scored 90 or more points in five consecutive games, the longest such streak in program history. The Crimson Tide enters Saturday’s game leading the SEC in scoring offense (84.4 points per game) and 3s made per game (11.1), while ranking second in three-point shooting percentage (37.2). Alabama’s 11.1 made 3s per game ranks third in the nation, while its 84.4 points per game ranks fourth nationally.
“Guys are buying in,” Oats said. “It’s a lot more fun to play this way. Two years ago at Buffalo, we were the only team in the country that had four guys average 15 points or more. It’s just more scoring to go around for everybody when you play this way.”
One distinct advantage Alabama will have Saturday is its ability to hit 3s. Guard John Petty Jr. entered Friday ranked No. 3 in the nation shooting 50.5 percent from beyond the arc. Over his past 11 games, the junior is averaging 19.2 points and 4.3 made 3s while shooting 56 percent from deep.
“They’re going to shoot 35 3s. If they make 16, 15, 18, move on to the next game,” Calipari said of Alabama. “It’s hard, that’s a lot for us. And again, we’ve got to make six or seven (3s). You’ve got to make six or seven because they are going to hook seven in.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky ranks 300th in the nation, shooting 30.10 percent from beyond the arc. The Wildcats’ best 3-point shooter, Immanuel Quickley, is shooting 37.5 percent from deep but has made four 3s in a game just once this season.
Despite its advantage on the perimeter, Alabama still has a healthy respect for this year’s Kentucky team. The Wildcats feature three elite guards in potential NBA Draft lottery pick Tyrese Maxey as well as Ashton Hagans and Quickley. Maxey leads the team with 14 points per game, while Hagans is tied for the SEC lead in assists per game (7.1) and steals per game (2.1).
Alabama and Kentucky are set to tip off at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN. The Wildcats will be looking for their 1,000th SEC regular-season win. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide will hope to snap an eight-game losing streak to Kentucky in Lexington, Ky.
“This is why you put all the hours you do in the offseason in the gym, to play games like this,” Oats said. “They’ve got some of the best players in the country. We know they’re going to have some of the best players in the country every year. So our guys are a pretty confident bunch. They feel like they belong in that conversation with some of the better players in the country. There’s no better way to figure that out than on the floor.”