Ladies and Gentlemen, your 18th-ranked, SEC-leading Alabama Crimson Tide (11-3, 6-0 SEC, NET: 18, Kenpom: 17) hits the road again tonight, this time heading down to the Bayou to play the best team Baton Rouge can buy in the LSU Tigers (10-2, 5-1 SEC, NET: 21, Kenpom: 22). What a sentence. Nate Oats has strung together some very impressive wins in his short time here in Tuscaloosa, but Saturday’s evisceration of Arkansas may be his finest work yet. With Herb Jones battling a finger injury, Jahvon Quinerly in his first game back from his two-week absence, and Jordan Bruner out, Alabama absolutely dominated an Arkansas team that’s only lost three other times all season. I’ve called the Hogs a tournament team before, but that smack-down might have dropped them out of the running for the time being (they have a really thin resume with basically no wins of note).
Either way, that’s a good team that the Tide emptied the bench on with about ten minutes to play. Coincidentally, LSU did the same thing to the Razorbacks last week as well, and with numerous pros dressing out in the purple and gold, Will Wade’s once again financed a true contender in the SEC. At this point, it’s shaping up to be a three-team race for the regular season crown, and Alabama already dispatched the Tennessee Volunteers on the road.
So, this is another massive Tuesday night showdown for Tide Hoops. A win tonight would make Alabama the clear favorite to win the SEC, which would be the first time the Tide has done so since 2002, when current assistant coach, Antoine Pettway, slipped behind the Florida defense for a game-winning bucket that rocked Coleman Coliseum. Can the Tide continue its hot tear?
POINT 6’4 Javonte Smart (15.2 PPG, 4.0 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Cameron Thomas (22.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 SPG)
WING 6’5 Mwani Wilkinson (4.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.3 SPG)
POST 6’7 Darius Days (13.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.5 SPG)
POST 6’9 Trendon Watford (18.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.2 SPG)
Will Wade’s starting five is about as good as there is in college basketball, outside of Spokane, Washington, at least. With a trio of former five-star recruits in the starting group, there aren’t many in the country who can measure up to LSU’s level of talent. Point guard, Javonte Smart, has been around forever, it feels like. He’s having by far his best year shooting the basketball (50.8%/45.9%/73.9%), which was the only thing keeping him from the NBA Draft after his first two seasons in Baton Rouge. With a 20.8% AST% and an 11.0% REB%, he’s well-rounded in most areas of the game.
Joining him in the back-court is freshman phenom, Cam Thomas. When four-year starter and First Team All-SEC guard, Skylar Mays, finally graduated this season, I didn’t think there was any way the Tigers could replace him. Boy, was I wrong. Thomas has been an electrifying scorer for LSU. However, he doesn’t have the most efficient numbers (42.1%/30.8%/89.5%). Regardless, he averages nearly 16 shots a game for a reason, and Alabama better be ready to defend him as soon as he crosses half-court. Thomas ain’t sticking around as long as Smart has.
In the post, unconventional wing-big combo, Trendon Watford, former five-star from Irondale, AL and two-time Mr. Basketball in the state, has been putting up SEC Player of the Year type of numbers (51.9%/43.5%/75.9%; 20.5% AST%; 11.5% REB%) for Wade in his sophomore season. His decision to forego the 2020 NBA Draft and return to LSU this year was a bit of a surprise, but much like Smart, his less than stellar shooting was the reason why. Seems like both of them got the memo.
That’s really the trio Alabama has to be focused on defensively. Junior stretch-four, Darius Days, can definitely be a problem as well (56.1%/40.0%/75.0%), and he is their best rebounder (17.2% REB%), but his game is pretty simple: he bangs on the glass and occasionally pops out to the corner for the three. Alabama won’t want to lose track of him, but if he is getting his, you kind of have to tip your hat. Wilkinson is a true freshman and a raw prospect that reminds me of Keon Ellis: long, can guard any position, and is still working on his offensive game, but is definitely efficient with his looks (78.6%/50.0%/72.2%).
Off of the Bench
GUARD 6’0 Jalen Cook (3.5 PPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Eric Gaines (2.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Charles Manning Jr. (4.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.8 APG)
WING 6’7 Aundre Hyatt (3.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG)
POST 6’7 Josh LeBlanc (2.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG)
POST 6’10 Shareef O’Neal (3.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
In case you have somehow missed the key takeaway from Will Wade’s time at LSU: he’s got guys. Dudes from Brooklyn and the Bronx, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, etc. They come from all over; beyond eager to spend years of their life in Baton Rouge, LA. Sons of legends like Charles Manning and Shaquille O’Neal. They are lining up to play for a second-tier SEC basketball school.
Now, Manning has already entered the transfer portal and O’Neal has been out for over a month with a foot injury, so neither should be expected to suit up tonight. Cook and Gaines are both true freshman who will be relied on heavily next season after the trio of Watford, Smart, and Thomas head to the NBA, and they’ve obviously got talent, but neither has been a difference-maker this year. Hyatt and LeBlanc are both big bodies that add size and depth, but neither is much of a threat offensively.
Three Keys to Victory
- Limit One of the Big Four. I’ll throw Days in with Watford, Smart, and Thomas here, he’s earned it. Together, these four account for 69.1 of LSU’s 86.1 PPG, not even taking into account assists. In essence, they are the LSU offense. Which is pretty remarkable, really, considering LSU is 5th in the country in Offensive Efficiency. In a game where defensive stops are going to be at a premium, if Alabama can successfully shut-down one of these four players (what’s up, Herb?), it will be difficult for LSU to keep up in this track meet.
- Offensive Movement. And it’s going to be a track-meet, because LSU doesn’t play a lick of defense. Kenpom has them rated 107th in Defensive Efficiency, which is really bad for a team with this much talent. They don’t do much of anything right on the defensive end. They check-up one-on-one pretty decently, but the moment they have to rotate, it’s an open look at the basket. Alabama doesn’t need to get caught up on isolations (but even if the Tide does, I’m having a hard time seeing anyone staying in front of Quinerly). Bigs have absolutely gashed LSU all year because Watford isn’t really a post player, he’s just a big wing. Unfortunately, Alabama lost its only true center. But the rim is unprotected quite a bit with this LSU team. They don’t communicate well on pick-and-rolls or off-ball screens, and they give up a lot of second chance points.
- Keep up the Pace. As Erik alluded to in his article earlier, teams that try to run with Alabama aren’t too successful at doing so. LSU likes to play with some pace, so it seems unlikely that they will be making this a slow, half-court game. The Tide needs to coax LSU into an up-tempo shootout, because a team that’s already bad at communicating on defense really gets pressed in track meets. Bonus points for forcing lazy defense to turn into fouls on the Big Four.
This is the toughest remaining game on the schedule for Alabama. Trips to Arkansas and Missouri won’t be easy either, but we already saw what the Tide did to the former. A win tonight makes it really hard to see a scenario where Alabama doesn’t contend for the SEC regular season crown and a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Imagine me typing that out at any point prior to 2021, the unofficial Year of the Tide.
The thing is, even a loss won’t change much on either of those fronts. Alabama is playing with house money tonight; can the Tide double up?
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.