After the 5-5 split in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge this past Saturday, the SEC jumps right back into the grind of conference play this week. For Alabama (12-7, 4-2 SEC, NET: 41, Kenpom: 42), that means diving straight into the toughest stretch of the entire season. In the next six games, the Crimson Tide will play 22nd-ranked LSU twice, fellow NCAA Tournament bubble teams Arkansas and Tennessee at home, and will make a return trip to Auburn Arena to take on the 17th-ranked Tigers after a roadie in Athens against an extremely talented Georgia squad. It’s put up or shut up time for the Tide.
First up, is a road trip to the conference’s leader and lone unbeaten team in conference play, Will Wade’s LSU Tigers (15-4, 6-0 SEC, NET: 25 Kenpom: 32). The defending SEC regular season champions have fielded another strong ass team this season, as they’ve yet to lose to a team ranked outside of the top 65 in the current NET standings. They have the talent and size to go up against anybody in the country; however, despite the undefeated SEC record, they’ve narrowly avoided losing a number of times since the calendar flipped to 2020. The Tigers have won their last six games by less than four points.
Clearly, this is a really talented team that knows how to execute down the stretch to pull out win after win. But they are also overdue for that first conference loss. Can the Tide catch them slipping in Baton Rouge?
POINT 6’5 Ja’vonte Smart (11.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Skylar Mays (15.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.4 APG, 2.1 SPG)
WING 6’9 Trendon Watford (13.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
POST 6’6 Darius Days (11.6 PG, 7.8 RPG, 1.0 APG)
POST 6’6 Emmitt Williams (13.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.3 BPG)
The Tigers are big, athletic, and gifted. 6’5 point guard Ja’vonte Smart was, let’s just say, highly coveted by Wade prior to his time in Baton Rouge. His size-skill combo makes him incredibly difficult to guard, especially when he is paired with guys like Watford and Williams in the pick-and-roll. He’s struggled as a shooter (39.6%/28.3%/83.7%), but again, his ability to penetrate the paint and either finish above the rim himself or toss it to one of his leaping forwards (23.5% AST%) is incredibly difficult to defend.
Mays, who apparently still has eligibility somehow (not in the Will Wade violation kind of way, but in the “Hey, wasn’t this guy on their 2006 Final Four squad?” kind of way), is as traditional of a shooting guard as you get. He’s an elite three-and-D player (48.8%/37.3%/85.0%, 3.4% STL%, 97.3 DRtg) that has an uncanny ability to knock down the clutch shots in crunch time. He’s gone a long way in all of their close victories.
As strong as the back-court is for this team, the front-court is where the Tigers really thrive. They have a trio of tall, lengthy, athletic forwards who each play really well around the basket. Watford should be familiar to Alabama fans, as he’s the five-star prospect “from” Mountain Brook who spurned the Tide just last Spring for the stronger plains of Baton Rouge. Watford was a man among boys at the high-school level in the state, but his skills have transferred over pretty well at the college level (48.2%/27.8%/64.7%, 12.5% REB%, 10.6% AST%, 2.7% BLK%). He’s a jack-of-all-trades in the paint.
Williams is arguably the most athletic big in the country. I was stunned to see him listed at 6’6, because he plays like he is 6’11. With a 13.5% REB% and 5.7% BLK%, it seems unfair that he can also shoot decently well (60.0%/40.0%/80.0%) and dish the ball (8.3% AST%). Days is basically a lesser version of Williams. Also listed at 6’6, his numbers are slightly behind Williams’ in every facet, except for his rebounding (49.7%/26.7%/75.6%, 16.6% REB%).
GUARD 6’5 Marlon Taylor (4.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG)
GUARD 6’5 Charles Manning Jr. (8.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 BPG)
GUARD 6’5 Aundre Hyatt (2.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
LSU is short on depth, but that’s about the only time that word can be used to describe anything related to LSU basketball. No, the above list doesn’t contain any typos. All three significant contributors off of the bench for the Tigers is a 6’5 guard. Manning and Taylor are two of the Tigers’ better shooters (Manning: 54.3%/40.9%/68.4%); Taylor: 32.3%/37.5%/88.2%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Hang Around on the Glass. Alabama is one of the few teams in the country that can match the Tigers’ across-the-board size, with Kira Lewis (6’3), John Petty (6’5), Herbert Jones (6’7), Alex Reese (6’9) and one of Javian Davis (6’9) or Galin Smith (6’9) on the floor. Matching LSU in rebounds and preventing the Tigers from getting easy looks at and around the basket are going to be absolutely critical in this game.
- Deny Dribble-Penetration and Force Jumpers. A winning formula for LSU typically follows a path where they straight-up bully teams with dribble-penetration and pick-and-roll them to death. They are not a very good shooting team, though. Outside of Mays, nobody on the roster consistently knocks down jump-shots. Alabama has to deny any kind of penetration into the painted area if they want to win this game tonight. If the Tide can coax LSU into turning this into a quick-paced shooting contest, that will greatly benefit Alabama.
- Fouls. Fouls are going to be huge in this game. For one, as bad of a shooting team as LSU is, they are really good from the free throw line (76.6%, 24th in the country). It’s another reason why the Tigers very rarely bother to settle for jump shots. Why shoot the ball from outside of the paint when you can just bully teams with your size knowing that even a foul is a huge net gain? On top of that, Alabama simply doesn’t have enough of a front-court to withstand a bevy of calls going against Jones, Davis, or Smith. Good thing those guys never foul, right? Guys?
This is the beginning of a massive stretch that will define the Tide’s 2020 season. Alabama is very much in play for both the NCAA Tournament, and the SEC regular season championship. Only two games out of these same Tigers, the Tide has a golden opportunity to go into Baton Rouge tonight and stun everyone. Nate Oats has already checked off a number of huge goals in his first season. Can he lead the Tide to a road upset over a ranked, undefeated in conference opponent?
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.