The LSU Tigers (11-4, 2-1 SEC) were picked to finish dead-last in the SEC by pretty much everyone who released a poll this past off-season. In a year where there was going to be marked improvement from so many different teams in the league, the one constant everyone seemed to be able to agree upon was that the Bengal Tigers from Baton Rouge would finish at the very bottom of the standings. The consensus take was that former VCU coach Will Wade was a great hire, and that one day LSU would ascend back to relevancy in the conference, after the infamous Johnny Jones took them to the cellar. But not in year one. No, the Tigers were to take their lumps and be better off for it in the future.
Well, somebody forgot to mention that to LSU.
Following the Tigers’ 75-54 thumping of Arkansas in Fayetteville, it’s about time everybody dropped that established preseason narrative. LSU is as alive as anybody in the conference, and they’ve built some serious momentum as they try to make a surprise run at the NCAA Tournament. Alabama (10-6, 2-2 SEC) has yet to win a true road game this year, and it won’t get any easier in Baton Rouge Saturday night. Considering how poorly the Tide has played away from home in conference play so far, the team is going to have to bring its ‘A’-game if Alabama wants to leave Baton Rouge victorious.
- POINT 5’11 Tremont Waters (16.8 PPG, 6.1 APG, 3.7 RPG, 2.3 SPG)
- GUARD 6’4 Skylar Mays (12.1 PPG, 3.5 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
- GUARD 6’3 Daryl Edwards (5.9 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- POST 6’9 Aaron Epps (10.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 0.6 BPG)
- POST 6’10 Duop Reath (12.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.9 BPG)
Any and all discussions about LSU’s turn-around this season have to begin with Tremont Waters. In a conference that has seen a huge influx of talented freshmen this year, Waters has probably been second only to Alabama’s own Collin Sexton. He’s 5th in the league in PPG, posting a 47.4%/41.8%/78.8% shot-rate, and he’s leading the league in both APG (with a ridiculous 31.5% AST%) and SPG (4.1% STL%). He’s been incredible in pretty much every area one would want from a sub-six foot point guard, and he has totally ignited the fire in his teammates and raised everyone’s level of play.
Not that LSU was lacking talent to begin with. Joining Waters in the back-court is Mays, a former blue-chipper himself that played way more point guard than he needed to last season. Now he plays more off of the ball, allowing him to get better looks at the basket and post much better shooting percentages (46.2%/36.7%/88.1%). He’s still quite a capable distributor of the rock though (19.0% AST%), and when combined with Waters the two make-up the most disruptive pair of guards in the SEC in terms of stealing the basketball. JUCO transfer Edwards has cracked the starting rotation recently because of his pure shooting ability (48.3%/43.2%/85.7%), which adds quite the conflict for teams trying to defend two great passing guards like Waters and Mays.
In the front-court, seniors Epps and Reath are finally getting to really utilize their length/athleticism combo that makes them so difficult to stop. What makes them especially dangerous though is that both of them can step back and knock down jump-shots as well (Epps: 53.9%/37.5%/75.0%, Reath: 57.5%/54.5%/65.9%). When these five are on the floor, there is nobody that can’t knock down a three-point shot with at least some consistency. That’s incredibly difficult to stop.
- GUARD 6’5 Brandon Sampson (7.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- GUARD 6’5 Brandon Rachal (5.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- GUARD 6’3 Randy Onwuasor (4.7 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- WING 6’6 Wayde Sims (7.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
What LSU lacks in post depth they make up for in quality guard and wing play. Sampson is another blue-chip player coming out of high school that wasted his first two years of eligibility playing for Johnny Jones. He’s a strong scorer in his own right (51.0%/34.6%/63.6%), though he could use some more work from the line. Sims is about the only guy on the roster that can’t knock down perimeter jumpers, but his 10.3% REB% and 4.2% BLK% come in handy for a team that lacks much true post play. Onwuasor is a senior who’s shooting 50.0% from the field and 81.3% from the line, and Rachal is another young freshman who’s starting to come along for the Tigers.
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Basketball. Will Wade comes from the Shaka Smart school of forcing turnovers. Full court presses, playing out on guards, traps on any area of the court, etc. The players haven’t quite gotten there just yet, but they are still going to try to create havoc on defense whenever they can. Alabama has had a tenancy to get sloppy at times on offense. They can’t afford that Saturday night. Sexton needs to do his best to keep things flowing, yet controlled. That will be a tough test for a true freshman. If the Tide can make good passes and get up and down the court, LSU’s defense tends to break-down quite a bit. They give up a decent number of points in transition if their opponents take care of the ball well.
- Defend the Perimeter. As mentioned earlier, LSU’s entire starting five can shoot the three-ball. That makes them so difficult to defend. They can attack the paint with guards and slide their big men out to the perimeter for open treys from the short corner, they can run pick-and-pops with anybody on the court, they can use off-ball screens to free up shooters on the wing, etc. Alabama has been especially vulnerable in three-point defense all season. LSU will eat the Tide’s lunch if Alabama doesn’t commit to contesting and preventing three-point opportunities.
- Get Donta Hall Involved Early and Often. One key area Alabama will have a decisive advantage will be in the paint. Neither Epps nor Reath are strong defenders or skilled post scorers. Hall and Daniel Giddens will be critical in this match-up. Offensively, Alabama needs to attack the rim and go to the post as much as possible, especially since the possibility of getting either Epps or Reath in foul trouble forces LSU to play an especially small version of small-ball.
SEC basketball really has become what SEC football used to be: anyone can be beaten on any given night. LSU is the perfect example of that. Picked to finish dead-last in the league, the Tigers are very much alive for the NCAA Tournament still. As alive as Alabama is. The Tide really need a good showing in Baton Rouge, because the schedule doesn’t let up, and there aren’t a ton of good road opportunities left where the Tide won’t be significant underdogs.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.