The Crimson Tide basketball team will play its SEC home opener tonight when the LSU Tigers visit Coleman Coliseum for a big SEC clash. The game is scheduled to tip off at 8:00 pm CST and will be televised regionally on CSS and streamed outside the region on ESPN3.
With two consecutive road wins over Georgia Tech and Georgia and some new-found signs of offensive life, Alabama's stock seems to be rising at just the right time. The Tide now has a 12-3 record and is in solid position to not only make the NCAA Tournament, but also to improve its seeding as the "meat" of the schedule gets here.
Speaking of the "meat" of the schedule, people for a while have been pointing to the three-game stretch that begins this weekend, when the Tide will play at Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and at Kentucky in consecutive matchups against projected NCAA Tournament teams. Most people at the beginning of the season, and even a month into the season, didn't see tonight's home game against LSU as anything more than a disaster-avoidance game. However, the Tigers have surprised many by piecing together a fairly solid set of results this season, and most importantly of all they are playing their best basketball in years entering tonight's game.
LSU, under fourth-year coach Trent Johnson, was dreadful last season. The kind of dreadful that nearly broke records (for worst major-conference team in the RPI era) and perhaps, in conjunction with Auburn's dreadfulness, cost Alabama an NCAA Tournament berth by poisoning the Tide's RPI and SOS. Slight improvement was expected this year with some solid talent coming in, but Trent Johnson's squad has exceeded expectations. LSU is now 11-4 with a marquee win over projected NCAA Tournament team Marquette (who was ranked at the time) and fresh off an absolute beat-down of Ole Miss in their SEC opener on Saturday. They also have solid wins over top-150 teams Georgia Tech, Rutgers, and Boise State.
It hasn't all been roses for LSU, though. They started off the season 1-2 with a loss at Coastal Carolina and then a close loss against projected NCAA bubble team Northwestern. Things got even worse with an embarassing home loss to South Alabama (in overtime) that dropped the Tigers to 3-3 early on. Since then, though, the young squad has come together and played very well, going 8-1 over the last nine games with the only loss being a close one to a very good Virginia team. They can probably be considered the 6th team in the SEC right now, just behind the five projected NCAA Tournament teams in the league. In fact, the Tigers have been so impressive over the last nine games that they are actually generating some serious NCAA bubble discussion themselves.
The surprise leader for the Tigers has been 6'11" junior center Justin Hamilton, a transfer from Iowa State who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Hamilton is averaging 13.0 points and 7.5 rebounds a game to surprisingly give LSU a force inside that has boosted the entire team. Hamilton isn't flashy or particularly explosive, but he has been extremely effective. At 6'11" and 260 pounds, he'll be a load inside for Green, Jacobs, and possibly even Engstrom.
A trio of young guards headline the LSU backcourt. 5'9" sophomore Andre Stringer, 5'10" freshman Anthony Hickey, and 6'6" sophomore Ralston Turner each average between 9.0-11.5 points/game from the perimeter. Hickey, in particular, has been a godsend for Trent Johnson's team. The freshman point guard is averaging over 4 assists/game (one of the highest rates in the SEC) and 2.5 steals/game in addition to scoring nearly double-digits. His presence has really benefited Stringer, who is now free from point guard duties and can focus more on scoring, where he excels. Meanwhile, Turner, an Alabama native, continues to perform as an all-around solid player out on the wing. In all likelihood none of these three guys are All-SEC material this season, but given their youth they've been a pleasant surprise and look to be a nice foundation for this LSU program moving forward.
A trio of forwards usually split time alongside Hamilton in the post. Unfortunately for LSU, 6'9" freshman Johnny O'Bryant, a highly touted recruit who was pursued hard by Anthony Grant and his staff, broke his hand last week and is out indefinitely. This means even more playing time for veterans Storm Warren, a 6'7" senior, and Malcolm White, a 6'9" senior. Warren and White were both starters last year, and have plenty of experience, but neither is a game-changer. Warren is the more dynamic scorer, averaging 8.5 points/game despite playing less than 20 minutes each contest. 6'9" sophomore Jalen Courtney also provides depth in the post and 6'9" junior wing player Eddie Ludwig contributes as well, oftentimes out on the wing.
As a team, LSU has been extremely good defensively, ranking 19th nationally and 3rd in the SEC in overall defensive efficiency. In particular, their size has given teams problems. They have at least three players at all times on the court who are 6'6" or taller, and they are good as shot-blockers and rebounders. The will have a size advantage over the Tide, and their overall defensive strength will make things very difficult on the Bama offense.
LSU has struggled offensively, though, ranking only 182nd nationally and 10th in the SEC in overall offensive efficiency. However, they do have one major strength on the offensive end: rebounding. LSU is 3rd in the SEC in offensive rebounding rate, and again, their size could give Bama trouble if the Tide doesn't rebound well.
Playing at home in front of what is expected to be a large and hopefully loud crowd at Coleman Coliseum with students back in Tuscaloosa, Alabama is favored to win this game. Alabama also needs to win games like these at home against the middle-ish teams in the league if they want to have any chance at all of competing for an SEC title or attaining a good seed for the Big Dance. However, this LSU team will present a far bigger challenge than was previously thought, and a win is far from automatic. With both defenses ranked in the top 20 nationally, scoring will be at a premium and each possession and mistake will be magnified (why does this sound familiar...LSU...Alabama...defense...?). It is important for Bama to take advantage of each scoring opportunity and to rebound as well as possible against this very good rebounding team in order to prevent scoring chances for LSU. If Bama can do these two things, a 2-0 SEC start should be the Tide's for the taking. Hope for the best.