Pressure is on in Baton Rouge

The Crimson Tide basketball team will play its most vital game in years tonight in Baton Rouge against the LSU Tigers. Tip-off is set for 8:00 CST, with the game being televised nationally on ESPN and streamed world-wide on ESPN3.

It may seem strange to call a game against the dead-last team in the conference "the most vital game in years", but considering that the Tide would see both a realistic shot at an NCAA Tournament berth and a realistic shot at an SEC Championship disappear in front of our eyes with a single loss in a single game, I think it's justified. But that is exactly what Bama faces in this game: instant death for both our major goals this season if we don't leave town with a victory in hand--a victory that, honestly, does virtually nothing to improve our standing.

How is it possible we find ourselves in such a crucial game that is both vital and a complete "lose-lose" proposition? Well, it's half our fault, and half LSU's. Part of the problem was described right here on Tuesday: due to our own...let's call it underperforming...at the start of the season, our borderline resume has reached its maximum capacity for bad losses. Given the tenuous nature of our position on the bubble due to our own shortcomings, one more really bad loss would push us over the edge for good.

The other part of the problem is that LSU has been so bad this year that they more than qualify as a "bad loss". Struggling against a weak SEC West (they're 2-8 in conference) is one thing, but dropping multiple games to very weak teams in non-conference play hurts even further. LSU's RPI rating of #217 might be the lowest ever for an SEC team if they finish that way, though shockingly, they could be eclipsed and thus saved from history by yet another SEC team this year with an even worse rating (Auburn).

I'll save this rant for another time, but when other teams in the SEC struggle, it hurts Alabama in real and direct ways; anytime an SEC team has bad RPI numbers, it creates nothing but a lose-lose situation like we're facing four times this season in our games against LSU and Auburn, where a win does us absolutely no good (and actually might still hurt us a little by lowering our RPI) and a loss potentially ruins our season. As much as we dislike many of our SEC rivals, we need to keep our fingers crossed that they can get their basketball acts together, at least enough to avoid these awful lose-lose high-pressure conference games.

So our non-existent margin of error combined with LSU's embarrassingly low computer numbers means we just have to win this one. Fine. After all, we have been able to play our way into SEC Championship and NCAA Tournament position, despite the slow start, for a reason. And they have embarrassingly low computer numbers for a reason. Bama wiped out this same LSU team 70-46 just three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa. In fact, teams of Alabama's caliber play teams of LSU's caliber all the time--and almost always win. Only one problem though. Those lopsided contests virtually always take place in non-conference play on the home court of the superior team. This time, because the lopsided matchup is within the conference, the underdog gets home court advantage.

Make no mistake: Bama is the better team, and Bama can and should win this game. But with this game being played on the road, and with the pressure of knowing the devastation a loss would bring, you have to be a little nervous as a Bama fan. We've seen how close the Tide can come to coughing one up against a terrible team on the road, when Bama had a putrid shooting night at Auburn and only pulled away in the last minute or two on the road there. And even when these same two teams played a few weeks back in Tuscaloosa, LSU was still hanging around within one possession into the second half before the Tide went on a run to pull away. It's enough to make you nervous about the possibility, at any rate.

Bama's key here is to stay mentally tough. If the Tide's star players stay out of foul trouble and Bama sticks to the offensive and defensive systems that have gotten us where we are now, LSU shouldn't be able to outscore us given their offensive woes, barring some sort of bizarre shooting night or something of the sort. The Tide must simply go out and take care of business in a hostile environment (though I'm hoping not too hostile--one good part about LSU's awful results is that their fans long ago jumped ship, so hopefully both the quantity and quality of fan involvement will be significantly lacking in the Maravich Center on a late weeknight evening).

The real test here isn't going to be how well Alabama can play, because Alabama doesn't need to play its best and shouldn't need to catch breaks to win this one. Rather, the test will be how well this Alabama team stays focused on the task at hand as the pressure on this team mounts. This is really a test of focus and composure, and if Bama can keep both at a high level from whistle to whistle, the Tide should be able to leave Baton Rouge with its dreams still intact.

Read below the jump for full LSU roster breakdown and game analysis...

LSU's young team is led by a pair of freshmen stars on the perimeter. 5'9" Andre Stringer is the team's starter at point guard, where he averages 12.2 points and 3.0 assists per game. 6'5" Ralston Turner starts out on the wing, where he ties for team scoring honors with 12.2 points per game. Turner, a Muscle Shoals native, received an Alabama offer from the current staff, but we likely missed out on him in the midst of the Gottfried/Grant coaching change, which occurred right in crunch time for the 2010 recruiting class. Turner has missed some time recently, and was far from 100% in the previous Bama-LSU game, but he has averaged 34.0 minutes and 13.0 points in the Tigers' last two games, so he's at least close to fully healthy now. Stringer and Turner, in addition to being the team's two biggest scoring threats, are also the team's two best 3-point shooters. Both average right at 2 made treys per game and both shoot at about a 1/3 clip. The two freshmen guards are the only double-digit scorers on the team.

LSU's other starter on the perimeter is 6'7" freshman wing player Matt Derenbecker, who averages 7.0 points per game. 6'4" sophomore Aaron Dotson, who averages 6.7 points and 1.7 assists per game, started for most of the season but has been coming off the bench lately, while 6'1" junior Chris Bass comes off the bench as the back-up point guard.

LSU's starters in the post are 6'9" junior Malcolm White, a transfer from Ole Miss, and 6'7" junior Storm Warren. White is third on the team with 8.3 points per game and second on the team with 5.6 rebounds per game. Warren averages 6.2 points per game and leads the team with 5.6 rebounds per game. Neither player has great range, but White is the more polished offensive player while Warren is the more athletic of the two.

6'11" junior Garrett Green is the first post player off the bench, where he contributes 6.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He has better size and range than White and Warren, but isn't as good defensively. 6'9" sophomore Eddie Ludwig also sees plenty of action in the post as a bench option.

LSU's has some nice freshmen on the perimeter who could become the backbone of some solid LSU teams down the road, but none of their perimeter scorers are particularly terrifying for opposing coaches. They also have a decent mix of athleticism and skill in the post, but again, not really enough to trouble teams with solid talent there.

LSU's biggest strength is that they are a very disciplined defensive team. They rank 37th nationally in effective FG% defense and 3rd nationally in opponents' assist rate, both indicators that they don't allow teams to dissect their defense easily and get good shots. That said, their overall defensive efficiency numbers are hurt a bit by their weakness in defensive rebounding rate (262nd nationally) and their defensive turnover rate (204th nationally). Their defense ranks 109th nationally in overall efficiency, behind most teams in the SEC but well ahead of West foes Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn. Don't be surprised if they force Bama's mediocre offense into some bad shots, but Green and Mitchell should have some chances to get some second-chance points, and if the Tide plays with focus we should be able to avoid costly turnovers.

Looking back at Bama's 70-46 victory a few weeks ago, the numbers predicted pretty well how the game would play out on that end. LSU's defense frustrated Bama's offense early on, forcing some bad shots and largely preventing easy ones, but as the game wore on LSU's inability to rebound on the defensive end allowed the Tide to rack up a whopping 20 offensive rebounds in the game, compared to only 16 defensive boards for LSU--a nearly unheardof 56% offensive rebounding rate for the Tide. This will be a big key in this one as well, for if Green, Mitchell and company can get put-back points, the chances of an LSU upset decrease dramatically.

Offensively LSU has been pretty abysmal this year. Their offense ranks 297th nationally in overall efficiency, dead last in the SEC. The biggest issue here overall is lack of playmakers, but LSU's offensive problems go even beyond that. They rank at the very bottom of Division I basketball in giving up blocks (308th) and steals (312th), a very bad sign for Trent Johnson given that Bama's defense is near the top of the nation in those two categories. Their only bright spots offensively are offensive rebounding and drawing fouls, but really those are only bright spots relatively speaking, as they still rank near the bottom of the league in both categories. Bama's defense shouldn't be challenged by this group if we play up to our standard.

LSU hasn't scored more than 57 points in any of their four SEC home games thus far, and the Tigers managed only 46 against the Tide in Tuscaloosa. Bama needs to hold LSU in the 50's in this one, as anything more would make things difficult given LSU's disciplined defense. One big key to look for is steals and blocks. If the Bama defense can generate steals and blocks, as the numbers would suggest we should be able to do, it will take the crowd out of the game and make it much easier to hold the Tigers down in the 50-range.

A great offensive night from Alabama would be nice, but really, this game can and probably will be decided based on how well the Tide can rebound and defend. Do those things, and keep our focus and composure as was mentioned earlier, and Bama has an excellent shot to win its "most vital game in years".

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