The Crimson Tide must maintain both team chemistry and mentality in order to ensure that its best basketball is still ahead of it this season.
Following No. 7 Alabama basketball's 78-52 obliteration of Kentucky on Saturday, Wildcats head coach John Calipari first revealed his postgame sentiments to Tom Leach of the UK Radio Network.
"Wow," Calipari said. "May want to burn the tape."
Minutes later inside a crowded media room deep inside Coleman Coliseum, his message remained the same.
“That’s one I don’t know if I want to watch the tape," Calipari said. “[...] I just don’t even know if I want to look at the tape.”
There's no way of mistaking it: the Crimson Tide didn't just beat the Wildcats — it outright destroyed them. Through 40 minutes, Kentucky didn't lead for a single second. From the 12:36 mark in the second half, Alabama didn't even allow Kentucky to pull within 21 points for the remainder of the game.
For Alabama, shots were falling. The defense refused to back down. The Crimson Tide was blocking shots and wrangling in rebounds on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Alabama center Charles Bediako rendered Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe — last year's Naismith Player of the Year winner — essentially ineffective. No matter what the Wildcats threw at it, everything seemed to go right for the Crimson Tide.
Near the end of the game, the Alabama student section — commonly referred to as the Crimson Chaos — began to lead a chant of "NIT, NIT, NIT," jeering at the downtrodden Wildcats. It was a moment that, not that many years ago, seemed like an unobtainable future goal.
Kentucky is a college basketball blue-blood. Losses like Saturday's aren't supposed to happen, especially to programs like Alabama. Let's be real here: when comparing the Crimson Tide to the Wildcats, the Big Blue Nation has a far more impressive footprint in the world of college basketball.
However, according to Calipari, the chants from the students rattled not just him, but his players as well — particularly Tshiebwe.
“We got rattled," Calipari said. "[Tshiebwe] got rattled. We had a bunch of guys who got rattled in the game. Even in the second half when we just opened it up, and let's go dribble, drive, straight — we weren't able to move and get to where we needed to go."
Alabama head coach Nate Oats has quite the opposite reaction when asked about the students' 'NIT' chants, answering the question with a grin:
“Kentucky’s not gonna go to the NIT," Oats said. "They’re gonna be an NCAA Tournament team. It’s college students being college students. They’ve got plenty of talent over there. Cal’s done a good job assembling some talent. [...] I hope they’re contending for a championship at the end and we’ve got the tiebreaker, but they’ll get their stuff figured out. This isn’t the first time they’ve lost a game and figured it out and came back.
"Students are gonna be students. I love them, they’re great. That’s why college environments are better than NBA environments because you’ve got a student section that gets after it, but they’re still college students being college students.”
Alabama now has a 13-2 record to start the season and has put together one of the most impressive resumes in college basketball this season. In KenPom, the Crimson Tide ranks seventh. In the NET, Alabama sits at sixth. In both the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll, the Crimson Tide sits at No. 7 in both — for now.
There's still a long way to go this season, and this upcoming week alone proves that. On Wednesday, Alabama will pack its bags and will head off to face No. 13 Arkansas on the road. On Saturday, the Crimson Tide will play LSU back in Tuscaloosa. There's a lot more grueling games in its SEC gauntlet — a road game at Tennessee, more games against both Arkansas and LSU as well as a home-and-home with Auburn, to say the least — but that's simply what comes with a schedule in the conference.
That being said, Oats is very pleased with where his team is right now — particularly with its chemistry.
“This game showed we could be good defensively," Oats said. "[...] I like the chemistry with this group. We had really good chemistry with [the 2020-21 SEC title-winning] group. You had guys like [Alex] Reese volunteering to come off the bench. You’ve got a guy like Noah Gurley, who — when he doesn’t play as much — is a guy in the huddle, talking. We’ve got good chemistry, good leadership. I like where we’re at right now."
Oats, however, did offer a word of warning along with his expressing of satisfaction.
"It’s easy to have good chemistry when you’re winning games," Oats said. "We’ll see what happens when we hit a little adversity.”
Chemistry. It's a word often heard in the realm of sports. It's possessed by teams that succeed at the highest level; it's absence is lamented by teams that are near the bottom. Alabama's 2020-21 team did a lot of special things — SEC regular-season and tournament titles along with a trip to the Sweet 16 — and among the accolades, team chemistry was at its core.
And now, Oats believes that his team possesses it again.
Chemistry isn't the only ingredient that this Crimson Tide team owns. Mentality is another intangible that has led it to wins over two No. 1 teams and its 13-2 record to start the season. This team has both ingredients and, when combined, the two form to make a very tough combination to beat.
Alabama freshman guard Brandon Miller displayed the team's mentality best following the victory over Kentucky.
"I feel like it's a team effort," Miller said. "Kentucky's always going to be a great program. I think it's just good just to get a win like that here at home."
"It's not just beating Kentucky. It's who we play next."
After every big win this season, the quotes have remained the same from the Crimson Tide players. Not just them, but Oats as well. With every victory, the story remains the same: enjoy and appreciate the win, then move on to the next. It's a formula that's worked so far for Alabama, and will likely play a key factor should the team continue its success.
It's a mentality that has been a part of the success with Alabama football throughout head coach Nick Saban's tenure. And now, Oats has it fully instilled in the blue-collar basketball program of the Crimson Tide.
“We’ve gotta enjoy today," Oats said. "Tomorrow, we’ve gotta get locked in on Arkansas. It’s great that we played well in front of all these people. It was great to see Coach Saban there in the front row. [...] ‘Make their butts quit,’ I think is his saying if I remember. We were trying to make them quit tonight, trying to make him proud in the stands.
"I don’t think Kentucky necessarily quit, but I think our players tried to make them. That’s what we were trying to do."
Alabama's remaining games will only prove to get tougher and tougher as the season progresses. More losses will most certainly come, but if the team possesses the mentality of rattling opponents and maintaining its chemistry and mentality, then there's no telling what accolades this team is capable of bringing home.