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January 17, 2011TUSCALOOSA _ In sophomore forward Tony Mitchell's mind there's no doubt. The toughest loss he's experienced at the University of Alabama was the one that he had to live with through the entire offseason.
"Kentucky in the SEC Tournament," he said without hesitation, and he's probably not the only one on the roster who feels that way.
Tuesday night, when the Crimson Tide hosts the Wildcats at Coleman Coliseum (8 p.m., ESPN), Alabama will get another crack at knocking off the seven-time NCAA champions.
Last time, after leading by as many as 11 points during the first half, Alabama wasn't able to hold off a late rally as No. 2 Kentucky pulled out a 73-67 victory in the quarterfinals and went on to beat Mississippi State in overtime for the league title.
But there are hardly the same Wildcats, which had five players selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft including No. 1 overall John Wall, the SEC Player of the Year.
"It's pretty much a brand new team," Coach Anthony Grant said. "A lot of times you like to go back and look at last year's film and see some similarities. You really can't do that with this team."
Taking their place and potentially following the same one-and-done route are Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. On Monday, Jones was named SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 26.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in wins over Auburn and LSU, with his 35 points off the bench against Auburn setting the school freshman single-game scoring record.
Though 17 games last year Kentucky's top three freshmen (Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Wall) combined were averaging 42.2 points. At the same point this year, Jones, Knight and Lamb are averaging 49.9.
No. 12 Kentucky leads the SEC in scoring (80.0), scoring margin (+18.1), 3-point percentage (.412), rebounding offense (40.8), rebounding margin (+7.2), fewest turnovers per game (10.9), assist/turnover ratio (1.3), defensive rebounding percentage (.717), and 3-pointers made (8.3).
"I think the thing that may get lost in it is that they're a very good defensive team," Grant said.
The Wildcats also play a different style from a year ago with four guards expected to start against the Tide, all of whom are averaging 9.4 points or better.
"I know they're a better shooting team this year, said junior forward JaMychal Green, who leads Alabama in SEC play with 17.3 points and 8.3 rebounds, while shooting 40-of-73 (.548 percent). "Last year they were tougher inside.
"They're pretty big this year too. Talented team."
In contrast, Alabama has outscored the opposition in the paint this season, 621-370, and despite giving up 70 points at Arkansas still leads the SEC in defense (56.8).
"We just have to focus on what we've been doing all year," senior guard Charvez Davis said.
However, this time Alabama will be at home, where it's a perfect 9-0 compared to its 10-7 record (2-1 SEC).
Although Kentucky fans are known for traveling well, this is considered Alabama's marquee home game of the season and for last week's win against South Carolina the student section overflowed.
"It's going to be crazy," Green predicted.
When asked what's been the loudest they've experienced Coleman, three players gave different answers on Monday:
"I'd say probably last year playing Purdue," Davis said.
"My freshman year when we played Auburn after we ended the streak in the Iron Bowl," redshirt sophomore forward/guard Andrew Steele said.
"Last year, Mississippi State," Green said.
Kentucky is 14-3 overall (2-1 SEC), and 5-3 away from Rupp Arena, having most recently stumbled at Georgia on Jan. 8, 77-70, to snap a seven-game winning streak. The other losses were to Connecticut and at North Carolina.
The Wildcats are also 119-28 (.810) against teams from the SEC West since the league split into divisions in 1991-92.
"(They are) really good defensively, really tough," Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters in Lexington before departing for Tuscaloosa. "Their inside guys remind me of the Georgia players. Very physical, get you near the basket, and if you're playing half speed you're going to get killed. Very active in the zone, they trap, they do good things and they run their stuff.
"I'm trying to find a tape to build my confidence up and I haven't found one yet because I start watching, and then I watched our game we played with them last year. The games we played with them last year, they were right (there), they had chances to beat us both games."