The Crimson Tide (9-6, 2-1 SEC) will try to bounce back from their first blemish of the SEC season as they head to Baton Rouge to take on the talented, yet incredibly disappointing LSU Tigers (9-6, 1-3 SEC) Saturday afternoon. LSU coach Johnny Jones has presided over one of the more perplexing 5-years stints in SEC history, as his Tiger teams are always one of the more talented in the conference, but they never seem to live up to their potential. With only one NCAA Tournament appearance in his first four seasons in Baton Rouge despite overseeing the likes of Ben Simmons, Craig Victor, Jordan Mickey, Johnny O’Bryant, Anthony Hickey, Jarell Martin, Keith Hornsby, and Tim Quarterman, the seat has become red-hot for Jones. It’s difficult to truly understand why LSU underwhelms every season, except to say that Jones clearly just isn’t cut out to coach at this level.
With all of that being said, LSU has still been successful over the years, finishing well over .500 every season since Jones’ arrival. They are, once again, a very talented bunch, capable of beating most teams on their schedule on any given night. Braxton Key is the only Alabama player that really measures up to LSU’s starting five in terms of overall, raw skill. But LSU just doesn’t play well as a team, specifically on defense, where they are currently ranked 206th in Kenpom’s Adjusted Defense ratings.
- PG 6’4 Skylar Mays (6.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- OG 6’4 Antonio Blakeney (17.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.5 SPG)
- 3G 6’5 Brandon Sampson (11.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.6 BPG)
- WF 6’9 Aaron Epps (5.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.5 APG)
- PF 6’10 Duop Reath (13.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.9 BPG)
Here’s a great example of the kind of talent LSU has: they start three former blue-chip recruits in the back-court. True freshman Mays overtook long-time point guard Jalyn Patterson for the starting spot thanks to his impressive 31.6% A%, meaning he assists on nearly 1⁄3 of every made basket the Tigers have while he is out on the court, one of the best in the SEC. He’s also a decent scorer (39.8% FG%, 32.0% 3P%, 77.3% FT%) who will only get better with age. Blakeney and Sampson are both having major bounce-back seasons after struggling to live up to their 4-star hype last season. Blakeney has been one of the best scorers in the SEC this year (47.8% FG%, 37.7% 3P%), and Sampson has been even more efficient (48.8% FG%, though only 31.1% from three). However, both have continued to struggle to rebound (Blakeney: 8.2% RB%, Sampson: 6.0%) and defend (Blakeney: 111.2 DRtg, Sampson: 109.2), and that has really hurt LSU.
Down low, the story for LSU has been more about who is no longer available as opposed to who is, as Craig Victor (10.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.3 SPG) was dismissed from the team right before conference play began. The leading rebounder and best defensive presence in the post, Victor’s dismissal for violating team rules has loomed large in the front-court.
In Victor’s absence, the Tigers have mostly turned to Epps and Reath to carry the load, although neither are exactly traditional low-post players. Both Epps and Reath can shoot, as they are both shooting 46.7% from beyond the arc, but they haven’t been able to expand their range much since they are having to play around the basket more. Reath is the better defender (Reath: 105.2 DRtg, Epps: 107.8 DRtg) and Epps is better on the boards (Epps: 14.4% RB%, Reath: 11.6% RB%), but neither have the full package like Victor did.
- G 6’0 Jalyn Patterson (5.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.5 SPG)
- G 6’4 Branden Jenkins (2.5 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.5 APG)
- G Kieran Hayward (2.2 PPG, 1.3 RPG)
- F 6’6 Wayde Sims (5.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
- C 7’1 Elbert Robinson (1.9 PPG 1.5 RPG)
Another negative effect from Victor’s dismissal is that LSU’s depth has been severely cut into. Patterson is a de facto starter as the sixth man, logging 24.5 MPG and running the offense whenever Mays isn’t. His 22.3% A% is very stout, but he’s struggled as a shooter (39.8% FG%, 28.9% 3P%), which is why Jones has decided to let the younger Mays with the higher floor become the starter.
However, besides Patterson, the rest of the bench just doesn’t impact the game much. Sims is clearly the best back-up forward. He is shooting 47.1% from the field and 42.9% from downtown, and he’s rebounding at a 10.3% clip. Robinson is massive, but he’s not shown much development at all, as he’s pretty much the same player he was two years ago: a big man who doesn’t score or defend well. Jenkins is a veteran presence and Hayward is a young prospect with a bright future, but they ultimately just don’t make much of a difference on the court right now.
Three Keys to Victory
- Attack. The. Basket. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills watching Alabama continue to settle for long jumpers this season. The Crimson Tide once again found a lot of success Tuesday night against Florida attacking the rim off the drive and in the paint, but once again went away from it far too often. Not only is LSU the worst defensive team in the SEC, they also only have one true post player left on the roster, the aforementioned Robinson. The guards can be beat on the drive, and the forwards don’t defend the rim well. Braxton Key, Avery Johnson Jr., and Dazon Ingram need to be going to the hole all day. Even if they don’t finish, chances are good that the long, leaping Donta Hall will clean up the miss.
- Fouls/Free Throws. The most frustrating thing about Tuesday’s loss to the Gators is that Alabama would have won the game if the Tide could simply make free throws. 16/30 from the charity stripe will lose you the basketball game 9/10 times, especially against a quality team like Florida. That simply has to improve. Luckily, LSU is as bad as Alabama in this department, as they’ve shot an embarrassing 64.4% from the line this season. They also don’t get to the line very often (318th in the country in FTA), so they basically get nothing from the free throw line every game. Alabama has an opportunity to create a large advantage here.
- Dominate the Glass. Don’t look now, but the Tide have been cleaning up on the glass lately. With LSU’s lack of an interior presence (and an assured large amount of missed jump-shots), Alabama could really dominate the boards Saturday afternoon. That could go a long way towards another conference road victory for the Tide.
If Alabama wants to make any noise in the conference standings, they need to win these kinds of games. LSU is a talented group, but they are at the bottom of the conference for a reason. Poor coaching, terrible defense, and a lack of a true post presence has haunted LSU all season. This is a winnable road game that could put the Tide at 3-1 in conference play with a home date with hapless Missouri on deck. If Avery Johnson’s squad can grab a pair of wins here, the Tide will be sitting pretty at 11-6 (4-1 SEC) going into next weekend’s showdown with Auburn.
The game will tip-off at 2:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.