It's that time of the year again everybody. The weather across the country is starting to warm up (hopefully for all of you), and with it, March Madness is heating up as well. With all of #SECBasketballFever coming together in Hotlanta for the week, anybody within a 100 mile radius will be scorching with the intensity of 1000 suns.
With Alabama laying the hammer on a previously red-hot Arkansas team on Senior Day, the Crimson Tide was able to avoid the Opening Round of Shame on Wednesday, and will instead take on the 7th seeded LSU Tigers (18-12, 9-9 SEC) on Thursday night. I'm sure all of you will recall that Alabama was able to best LSU in Tuscaloosa earlier this season 82-80 with Trevor Releford, Rodney Cooper, and Shannon Hale leading the way.
LSU has pretty much played at the same pace since the last meeting. The Tigers are still very athletic, and use that athleticism to dominate the boards and force a lot of turnovers defensively. However, they still turn the ball over a bunch themselves, and they don't take the best shots. It doesn't help that they aren't a very good free throw shooting team. LSU is coming off their second loss of the season to the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, and the Tigers seem destined to be in the NIT. However, they are a team that could make some noise in the SEC Tournament, and I honestly wouldn't be shocked to see them make a run at the Championship. They have the ability to do so. The winner of this game could be a sleeper, especially because Florida is on the other side of the bracket, and Kentucky has been very vulnerable as of late (not to mention LSU beat them at home and both teams almost beat the Wildcats in Lexington).
Anyway, from last time:
In the backcourt, the Tigers are led by a pair of experienced guards with a couple of nice, young players behind them. Senior G Andre Stringer (12.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.2 SPG) is a very good all-around player. He shoots well (42.5% FG%, 39.8% 3P%, 84.8% FT%), handles the ball well (2.9 APG to only 1.1 TOPG) and has great athleticism that makes him tough to both guard and get separation from. Junior G Anthony Hickey (8.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.2 APG, 2.3 SPG) is an artist at stealing the basketball. He's been fantastic in this regard his whole career, and that hasn't changed. He doesn't shoot very well (35.0% FG%, 33.3% 3P%, 58.3% FT%), but his quick hands aren't just for swiping the ball away, he also dishes the ball well. Sophomore G Malik Morgan (4.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.9 SPG) is a solid guard. He doesn't shoot well either (38.0% FG%, 22.2% 3P%, 51.4% FT%), but he can take the ball away at a decent percentage, and his height (6'4) is put to good use on the boards. Finally, Freshman G Tim Quarterman (3.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 SPG) rounds out the rotation. He is a very good defensive player, with a defensive rating of 93.7. He also averages a steal a game despite only playing about 13 MPG. He isn't much of a threat to score either, as his shooting numbers are even worse than Hickey's and Morgan's.
The backcourt is where LSU hangs their collective over sized hat though. Junior F Johnny O'Bryant (14.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.9 BPG) is a beast in the middle. He's only listed at 6'9, though he seems to play a lot bigger than that. O'Bryant shoots 50.5% from the field and plays very good defense. However, O'Bryant can have his struggles. He fouls a bunch and turns the ball over even more. He averages three fouls a game, which puts LSU in a bind at times, and his 3.4 TOPG is horrible for a guy that doesn't even get the ball as much as, say, a guard would. Freshman F Jordan Mickey (13.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 3.6! BPG) and Jerell Martin (8.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG) are the two highly touted guys that look to be the foundation of the LSU frontcourt for years to come. Mickey's ability to swat the ball speaks for itself, it's phenomenal. He shoots 57.3% from the field and 74.0% from the free throw line, which is very good for a freshman big man. He also has a defensive rating of 93.0. He is quite the presence on the inside. But he also has troubles turning the ball over, averaging 2.5 turnovers a game. Martin presents more of a threat away from the basket (45.1% FG%, 33.3% 3P%, 76.2% FT%) and doesn't play nearly the kind of defense that the other two do. But he has a ton of potential. Finally, Senior F Shavon Coleman (8.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.2 SPG) is a solid veteran. He doesn't do anything spectacular, but he is a good forward and plays well on both sides of the ball (43.7% FG%, 33.9% 3P%, 67.6% FT%, 95.4 DRTG).
Stringer (11.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.1 SPG) has continued to play at a high level, and his numbers are still pretty similar across the board.
Hickey (9.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.9 SPG) has seen his shooting numbers go up, but he is still dreadful from the free throw line (57.5%). He has to improve in that regard, but his 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and ability to steal the ball are what makes him such a special player for LSU.
Morgan (4.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.8 SPG) suffered a torn patellar tendon and is out for the year, making LSU's already thin bench even lighter.
Because of Morgan's injury, Quarterman (2.2 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.7 SPG) has seen his minutes increase significantly. He is dreadful offensively (24.2% FG%, 17.5% 3P%, 51.9% FT%), but he is a good defensive player.
Junior F John Odo (1.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG) and Sophomore F Shane Hammink (0.8 PPG, 1.1 RPG) have also seen their roles increase slightly, as they have had to pick up minutes in the backcourt for LSU. Neither player makes much of an impact, however.
LSU's bread and butter remains the big trio of O'Bryant (15.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.9 BPG), Mickey (13.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.7 SPG, 3.2 BPG), and Martin (10.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG). O'Bryant was just named a 1st team All-SEC player, Mickey was named to the 2nd team All-SEC, SEC All-Freshmen team, and SEC All-Defensive team, and Martin was named to the SEC All-Freshmen team as well. A lot of accolades for this group, and it is well deserved.
Coleman (8.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.4 SPG) has continued to play solid minutes and provides serious depth down low.
Three Keys to Victory
1. Be Aggressive Defensively. I know Alabama already plays pretty aggressively on defense, but the Tide really needs to let it go against LSU, especially at home. LSU turns the ball over a lot (262nd in the country), especially in the frontcourt, and they (surprise!) aren't good enough at the free throw line to make us pay for fouls (66.4%, 277th in the country; insert terrible free throw defense joke here).
2. Limit LSU's Advantage in the Post. At the very least, Alabama really needs its big guys to prevent LSU from going off on us down low. This is a huge advantage favoring LSU: on offense, on defense, and on the glass. I was very proud with how well our guys played against Florida. The Gators only out-rebounded the Tide by three, Patric Young and Dorrian Finney-Smith were held to a combined 4/13 shooting and 11 points, and Nick Jacobs's 12 points on 5/7 shooting was big. One of the keys last game was for Alabama to develop an inside presence, and they did pretty well. Heck, it was almost enough to get the win, even without Retin playing.
3. Be Efficient Offensively. What I mean by this is that Alabama needs to take care of the ball and get good shots. LSU is in the top 25 in the country in both steals and blocks. They aren't extremely sound like Florida, they are looking to either swipe the ball away from you or swat it away. And the Tigers will capitalize on fastbreaks. They like playing it that way, so Alabama will have to slow things down a bit, and be efficient.
Key #1 is a must here, Alabama needs to force LSU's hand on offense. With Nick Jacobs no longer around, Alabama can't hang with LSU in the post. The Tide will need to force LSU into uncomfortable positions. Trapping and doubling should be enforced quite a bit as Grant will surely want to pressure these guys into turning it over. Key #2 is absolutely necessary, and actually overlaps with Key #1 quite a bit. No more Jacobs = no more offense in the post. Alabama needs to get everyone involved in close range opportunities like they did against Arkansas, but they need to make sure that the looks are there and not just force it. Which leads me to Key #3, the Tide needs to be efficient. Take good shots, slow things down if nothing is there on the fastbreak, and please don't force entry passes in the post. LSU will eat that up all day. Let's try and get LSU's starters in some foul trouble too, that will force their bench players into larger roles than they are familiar with.
The beautiful thing about college basketball is that no matter how disappointing a team's season may be, it can always turn around with one week of good play in March. Let's face it, it's been a tough year for Alabama basketball and there is no chance of seeing this season continue without a Championship on Sunday. However unlikely that may seem, remember that Alabama has been competitive in nearly every game this year, and we have one of the all-time greats leading us in Trevor Releford. Alabama has beaten LSU before, hung with Kentucky on the road just last week, and can definitely beat either Georgia, Ole Miss, or Vandy in a potential SEC semifinal.
With that being said, Alabama could easily lose Thursday night as well. This team has played without much of an identity all year, and has yet to win a game away from home all season. But I saw with my own eyes the 2008 Georgia Bulldogs win 4 straight games and win the SEC Tournament; Alabama can do it too. Regardless, there is a good chance this will be Trevor Releford's last game wearing the Crimson and White, so tune in and watch SEC TV at 6:00 pm CST.
Hopefully I will be writing a preview for Kentucky following the game.