With yet another Q2 victory on the books for the Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7 SEC) following it’s 68-62 victory in Columbia against the Gamecocks this past Tuesday, Alabama has found itself right back in play for the NCAA Tournament. With only a couple of weeks to go before Selection Sunday, a bubble team like Avery Johnson’s squad is looking for any opportunity it can find to get a marquee win and a boost to its resume. Well, the Tide should look no further than tomorrow morning, as the 13th-ranked, and SEC-leading, LSU Tigers (23-5, 13-2 SEC) come to Tuscaloosa. There’s not much more a team like Alabama can ask for, as the Tide will tip-off at 11:00 AM in front of a home-friendly crowd in a no-lose type of situation.
Will Wade’s squad may just be the surprise of the 2019 season. After signing a top-5 recruiting class (in totally fair and legal ways, of course) this past year, the season got off to a somewhat slow, disappointing start. LSU wasn’t exactly playing poorly or anything, but when the Tide first met the Tigers in Baton Rouge, nobody was expecting them to have the inside track to the SEC Championship come March. The Bayou Bengals are currently tied with Kentucky and Tennessee, but they own head-to-head tiebreakers over each of them, and with only Florida and Vanderbilt left on the schedule after Saturday, things are looking really good for LSU to capture at least a share of their first SEC title in 10 years.
This is an exceptionally talented team, and Alabama is going to have to play as well as they did against Kentucky in the conference opener if they want to come away with a season-defining win tomorrow.
From Last Time
Three Keys to Victory
Avoid the Hangover. It’s been an emotional few days for the athletics program, which can easily cause a team coming off a major win to come out flat for the encore. The Crimson Tide are going to need another top-notch performance to beat this talented Tiger team. They simply can’t afford to ride the same roller coaster they road all year last season. LSU could run Alabama out of the gym if they play poorly.
Take Care of the Basketball. Will Wade likes to use his athletes to pressure ball-handlers and convert turnovers into easy baskets on the other end. It’s been his M.O. his whole coaching career. In case you missed the end of the Kentucky game, Alabama really struggles at times with taking care of the ball. That kind of comes with the territory when the only true point guard on the team is 17 years old. Dazon Ingram was clutch knocking down the free throws that helped put the Wildcats on ice, but he needed every one of them to avoid the catastrophic collapse that nearly befell the Tide due to his, among others, inability to hold on to the basketball. Alabama has got to do a better job in-bounding the ball and getting past full court traps.
Protect the Rim and Force Jumpers. LSU is 16th in the country in 2P% at 58.2%. They can really attack the basket. However, they are’t a great jump-shooting team. Besides Mays, they have had issues with consistency in this department, typically getting a decent night from one of Waters, Smart, or Days, but never getting much jump-shooting production from two or more. Alabama needs to keep LSU out of the paint and force them out on to the wings in this game. A team with a lot of talent can often fall in love with the jumper, and it can bite them if they aren’t on.
Obviously, much has changed since the first meeting back in early January. For one, the Tide aren’t coming off of their biggest win of the year. Secondly, the fan-base as a whole isn’t dealing with both a literal and metaphorical hangover the day after a crushing loss in the football national championship. Nope, it’s March now, and the focus is all on this Tide Hoops squad trying to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
The Crimson Tide actually showed well that night in the Bayou. The team out-rebounded LSU, turned the ball over less than the Tigers, and knocked down 22/26 free throws. The team even protected the rim pretty well, allowing only 18/42 field goals inside of the three-point line, which is pretty solid against this long, athletic crew. LSU just happened to shoot the lights out, knocking down 10/15 three-balls and making 22 of their 27 free throw attempts. This is for a team that, on average, shoots 31.9% from downtown and 76.4% from the free throw line. They simply shot the ball way better than they normally do, and when a team this talented is hot, you just aren’t going to beat them at their place.
What to Expect This Time
LSU has been in the headlines quite a bit recently. The rest of the country has finally caught on to the fact that this team has a legitimate shot at making a run to the Final Four. Their star point guard, Tremont Waters, has missed the last couple of games with an undisclosed illness, though Wade said he’ll likely be good to go for tomorrow’s game. And last, but certainly not least, Wade himself has been in the news. He was served a subpoena to appear in court on April 22nd to testify in the FBI’s investigation into illicit activities amongst college basketball programs. Not exactly an ideal time for the young coach to be dealing with this kind of press.
On the court, Waters may be limited, but the emergence of Ja’vonte Smart may render that meaningless. Smart had an all-time type of performance in the Tigers’ win over Tennessee last weekend: 29 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals. The five-star freshman got off to a slower start than his fellow frosh phenom Naz Reid, but he’s really kicked it into high gear out on the wing recently. With Waters back in the line-up, the Tigers’ starting five of Waters, Skylar Mays, Smart, Reid, and Oregon grad transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams is as good of a starting five as anywhere in the country outside of Durham, North Carolina.
However, Alabama played this team well in their previous meeting. As long as LSU doesn’t have another season-high day of shooting, the Crimson Tide have a shot. Avery Johnson’s group is one of the few in the country who can actually match LSU’s size/athleticism combo. And while he’s been playing some seriously well-rounded basketball lately, John Petty is overdue for a big-time shooting performance. Avery’s shortened rotation and practices also seem to have made a huge impact on this Tide team, as Kira Lewis, Petty, Tevin Mack, Riley Norris, Donta Hall, Herbert Jones, and Dazon Ingram are playing some of their best ball right now.
Alabama has a legitimate chance at knocking off LSU on Saturday. What better way to start off the month of March than with a statement win over a top-ranked team? It certainly would help make the selection committee’s job a lot easier come Selection Sunday in just two weeks.
The game will tip-off at 11:00 AM CST and will be televised on ESPN.