If 2021 was the Year of the Gump, 2022 has been the exact opposite of that - so far, at least. The Alabama Crimson Tide (11-6, 2-3 SEC, NET: 24; Kenpom: 16) has suffered three straight losses coming into the day, with very poor play in a number of areas plaguing a team that has gone from AP top-5 to unranked in the span of a month. Poor defense, weak interior play, horrific defensive rebounding, surprisingly bad shooting - it’s been a litany of issues for Alabama recently.
With that being said, this is still the team that went into Seattle and beat the current #1 team in the country, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, in a game that was far from a fluke - that win was sandwiched by victories over ACC-leading Miami and AAC-leading Houston. So when everyone’s favorite, Will Wade, comes into Tuscaloosa riding a personal four-game losing streak to the Tide, you better believe that Alabama has every inclination of winning this game. The last time these two teams met, the Tide was putting the finishing touches on a historic season by pairing its regular season SEC Title with a thrilling SEC Tournament Championship:
Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it? Alabama can get back to that level of play this season, the guys have it in them. It’s time to start that turnaround tonight against the 13th-ranked LSU Tigers (15-2, 3-2 SEC; NET: 8; Kenpom: 10).
This isn’t your one-year-older brother’s LSU Tiger team. Most of Will Wade’s tenure has been full of elite talents on strong offers putting up ridiculous numbers on offense while not playing a lick of defense. But that’s changed this season. I mean, the offers have remained strong, I’m sure, but LSU is now a team led by its defense. I know that’s hard to believe, but the Tigers are the best in the country in Defensive Efficiency this year.
It’ll take a Tide turnaround to beat this Tigers team, but Alabama absolutely has the ability to do so. Time to put in the work.
POINT 6’2 Xavier Pinson (10.9 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.1 RPG, 81.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Brandon Murray (8.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 85.7 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Mwani Wilkinson (3.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 80.5 DRtg)
POST 6’7 Darius Days (14.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 78.0 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Efton Reid (7.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 80.3 DRtg)
I wasn’t lying about the defense - check out those Defensive Ratings (remember, 100.0 is considered average, anything below that is above-average). When LSU lost it’s big three of Trendon Watford, Cam Thomas, and Javonte Smart last offseason, it definitely didn't seem like they would be 15-2 coming into this game, but here we are.
One of the major reasons for that is Missouri transfer, Xavier Pinson. Pinson traded stripes and wallets for his final year of eligibility, and he’s been the main creator of the LSU offense (42.2%/33.3%/81.4%; 30.1% AST%; 22.0% USG%). His turnover rate is a bit high (22.0%), but he’s not really a true point guard - he’s kind of been forced into that role. Brandon Murray is one of two true freshmen from IMG Academy in the starting line-up for LSU. He’s a scorer at heart, but it’s taken him some time to find consistency at the college level (45.4%/31.4%/64.0%). Mwani Wilkinson is a long 6’5, and he’s actually been the most efficient shooter for the Tigers thus far (43.9%/45.5%/63.6%), so the Tide doesn’t want to let him get open looks.
The frontcourt is really where LSU’s bread is buttered, though. Darius Days is in his fourth season in the starting unit, a true rarity in today’s game. He’s the same steady presence he’s always been - a rebounding specialist (13.7% REB%) with a high motor and the ability to stretch the defense with his perimeter shooting (42.9%/34.5%/66.7%). Efton Reid is the other freshman from IMG, who infamously went from Pittsburgh lock to LSU commit in the last night before the singing period ended after a visit from Wade. He’s a massive individual with loads of potential - he rebounds with authority (13.4% REB%), can shoot (51.7%/45.5%/50.0%), and protects the rim at a high level (7.4% BLK%).
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Eric Gaines (9.2 PPG, 3.2 APG, 3.7 RPG, 78.7 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Justice Williams (2.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 84.7 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Tari Eason (15.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 74.8 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Alex Fudge (5.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 76.2 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Shareef O’Neil (2.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 78.2 DRtg)
LSU’s bench is about as stout as you will find in the country. Cincinnati transfer, Tari Eason, may be the best player on the team (52.9%/27.8%/79.4%; 16.0% REB%; 7.4% BLK%). Eric Gaines plays much longer than a 6’2 guard, and uses that length to excel at turning opponents over (2.1 SPG). He’s struggled as a scorer (37.2%/20.0%/77.9%), but he’s the only other guy on the roster really dishing out assists (21.9% AST%). Alex Fudge is another true freshman with a ton of potential (47.9%/33.3%/60.0%; 13.3% REB%). Justice Williams has an unbelievably ironic name, considering who his coach is, but he and Shaq’s son both recently started playing after missing the entirety of the non-conference slate.
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Basketball. LSU’s defense is number one in the country for a bevy of reasons, but probably the most impactful is their ability to turn their opponents over. The Tigers are 4th in the country in Defensive Turnover %. They utilize a lot of full-court presses and traps, and they really extend their long guards out on opposing ball-handlers. Alabama has been very loose with the basketball at times this season - from over-dribbling to lazy passes - you name it. That will not fly tonight. LSU’s offense operates best when they are in transition - they aren’t the best in the half-court. Alabama cannot afford to turn the ball over and bail out LSU’s 104th-ranked offense (it’s bizarro-LSU, I know).
- Three-Pointers. I mentioned this against Mississippi State as well, but Alabama’s lack of size and ability to clear the glass and hold up on the interior almost necessitates that shots be falling from the perimeter this season. This is Alabama’s advantage. So, when they are shooting 27.2% from the arc - as the Tide has done since SEC play started - there are going to be losses. The crazy thing is that, despite all of its faults, if Alabama was shooting even just, say ~33% from three in conference play, the Tide would probably be 4-1 instead of 2-3. Jahvon Quinerly shot 43.3% from three last season - he’s at 24.7% this year. Jaden Shackelford is shooting 25.6% during the SEC slate, after shooting over 40% in non-conference play. These guys have to hit open treys. The good news is that they are absolutely due for some regression. We know they are capable of it. Noah Gurley was a career 34.4% three-point shooter at Furman. Granted, there has been an obvious step-up in defenses at Alabama, but he’s mostly taking open shots, and he’s only hitting 28.9% of them. The Tide is due.
- Get that James Rojas Energy Going. Nate Oats stunned everybody when James Rojas checked into the game against Mississippi State this past Saturday. And he made a difference. Watch that guy play without the ball in his hand. Sure, he lacks polish, but Alabama has desperately needed somebody to get physical, especially on the interior. Rojas was getting after it in Starkville - boxing out, clearing the glass, disrupting ball movement. That kind of energy is contagious, and I’d love to see more of that the rest of the way. Go back up and watch that highlight of the 2021 SEC Championship Game again - the fellas were getting after it. We’ve been missing that.
Tonight’s game feels like a major turning point for Alabama this season. It has the vibe of a make-or-break match-up. Will the Tide get up off of the mat and start playing like the Final Four contender that they are capable of being, or will they continue to fart around and go through the motions, content with a .500 conference record and a quick exit from both postseason tournaments come March?
It’s time to get moving, Alabama. DraftKings Sportsbook, for their part, thinks that the former may be true - they’ve listed Alabama as a four-point favorite* tonight. Can Alabama get this ship righted?
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.