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Bama Basketball Breakdown: LSU

After its biggest win of the season, Alabama looks to keep it rolling against another set of rival Tigers

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night’s win over Auburn was a major one for the Alabama Crimson Tide (13-6, 5-1 SEC; NET: 8; Kenpom: 8) for a bevy of reasons. For one, it’s always nice to remind Little Brother which program in the state is actually the basketball school. It was also the Tide’s biggest win of the season by a good margin and put Alabama back on top of the SEC standings. If the tournament started in Nashville today, the Tide would be the one-seed for the third time in four years - Kentucky-type stuff. But most importantly, it was the kind of game that a team needs to build confidence in itself and learn how to close out tight games down the stretch. We say a bit of that in Starkville a couple of weeks back, but the Bulldogs aren’t quite conference contenders.

Additionally, I think Nate Oats is starting to figure out his rotation. The unit of Mark Sears, Latrell Wrightsell, Rylan Griffen, Jarin Stevenson, and Grant Nelson might just be the best five Alabama has this year. Three dynamic scoring guards who also play the best defense of the backcourt options to go along with two near seven-footers who seem to be figuring it out a little bit. Nelson’s heroics late in the game the other night were evident, but Stevenson quietly had a great game as well. In terms of raw size and athleticism, Stevenson’s ceiling offers Alabama its best big in terms of providing some interior resistance defensively and on the boards - provided that things are starting to click, and Wednesday night’s performance was the beginning of a strong finish to the season. Being able to utilize Aaron Estrada as a secondary scoring option as a guard who can play any spot in the backcourt and make plays is a gift. And when you combine that with Sam Walters operating as an elite spot-up shooter and both Mo’s and Nick Pringle as depth and size in the frontcourt, that’s a heck of a squad.

There’s still a lot of ball to be played though, and that begins tonight as the LSU Tigers come to town (11-8, 3-3 SEC; NET: 91; Kenpom: 81). This series has definitely lost some heat since Will Wade was let go, and Nate Oats has absolutely dominated LSU, but second year head coach Matt McMahon is starting to turn things around in Baton Rouge. This is still not a good team, to be sure, but they are playing decent and competitive ball now, and Alabama can’t afford to overlook them.

The Roster

Starting Five

Jalen Cook: G, 6-0, 15.6 PPG, 2.8 APG, 3.7 RPG

Mike Williams III: G, 6-3, 7.5 PPG, 1.7 APG, 2.2 RPG

Jordan Wright: G, 6-5, 15.9 PPG, 2.5 APG, 5.4 RPG

Jalen Reed: F, 6-10, 8.3 PPG, 1.2 APG, 4.6 RPG

Will Baker: C, 6-11, 11.0 PPG, 0.9 APG, 5.2 RPG

Off the Bench

Carlos Stewart: G, 6-1, 4.7 PPG, 1.0 APG, 2.2 RPG

Trae Hannibal: G, 6-2, 4.9 PPG, 2.2 APG, 2.6 RPG

Mwani Wilkinson: F, 6-5, 1.5 PPG, 0.3 APG, 1.8 RPG

Tyrell Ward: F, 6-6, 7.9 PPG, 0.8 APG, 2.1 RPG

Derek Fountain: F, 6-9, 5.7 PPG, 0.6 APG, 4.3 RPG

Hunter Dean: F, 6-10, 3.4 PPG, 0.4 APG, 3.3 RPG

Much like the group of Tigers that preceded them, LSU will come into Tuscaloosa with a really deep squad. LSU plays 11 guys that all average over 10 MPG, although depth pieces Carlos Stewart and Mwani Wilkinson have both been dealing with injuries recently. The Tigers offense kind of goes as the three starting guards go, though. Vanderbilt transfer Jordan Wright has been the main engine offensively (40.9%/37.1%/81.1%; 16.4% AST%), but Jalen Cook - who originally signed with LSU out of high school before transferring to Tulane and then back to LSU this year - has been an electric difference-maker (41.5%/30.9%/75.0%; 20.7% AST%) since he made his season debut against Texas late in non-conference play. True freshman Mike Williams was a blue-chip recruit who has looked the part thus far (40.5%/36.1%/73.0%; 16.1% AST%).

In the frontcourt, LSU does have a lot of size and experience, which has definitely given the Tide troubles at times this year. Jalen Reed was recruited by Will Wade and fits the mold of a Will Wade-type post player perfectly - big and athletic with some offensive skill (53.0%/33.3%/64.9%) but doesn’t play a lick of defense (100.3 DRtg) and is a disappointing rebounder (10.6% REB%). Will Baker transferred in from Nevada, where he was known as a stretch-five who could be a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses. Unfortunately for LSU, that hasn’t really translated to high-major hoops (50.7%/28.6%/73.9%), and his defense (102.5 DRtg) and rebounding (12.3% REB%) leave a lot to be desired from a near seven-footer, as well.

Tyrell Ward is LSU’s best shooter (40.4%/40.9%/67.6%), Derek Fountain is another stretch big (58.8%/31.6%/75.9%), and Trae Hanibal has a ton of experience at this level - he started his career at South Carolina and then played heavy minutes for McMahon’s best Murray State team a couple of years back.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Turnovers. Obviously, taking care of the basketball is something we’ve addressed in this space for Alabama numerous times now, but it’s also significant against LSU specifically because the Tigers are great at turning teams over (20.2% TO% - 41st in the country), but also cough the ball up quite a bit themselves (18.9% TO% - 265th). If Alabama can at least keep the turnover margin about equal, as the guys were able to do against Auburn, this should be a game where Alabama takes care of business on its home floor.
  2. Physicality on the Glass. LSU is also not very good at closing out defensive possessions with a rebound, allowing opponents to get a second chance opportunity on nearly a third of their shots. Alabama has had its issues with that as well - albeit not nearly to that degree - but the Tide has remained strong on the offensive glass, currently clocking in at 33rd in the country with a 34.8% OREB%. Additionally, LSU’s bigs aren’t the soundest defenders, so Alabama should have plenty of opportunities to attack the basket, even if just to draw a foul and go to the line, which LSU gives up a lot of as well (32.4% Free Throw Rate - 179th in the county). The Tide has been elite from the free throw line this season (78.5% - 8th best in the nation) - which, as an aside, has been such a nice contrast from Tide Hoops teams of the past.
  3. Make it Rain. Alabama has run LSU off of the court a few times now in recent years, and it’s because the three-ball has been nearly automatic for the Tide in those games. Alabama shot 20/54 from the arc in last year’s 40-point beating and set an SEC record with 23 made-threes against LSU in the 30-point blowout in Baton Rouge in 2021. This year’s LSU team is merely decent defending the arc, and the Tide is one of the best in the biz in this regard. If the perimeter shots are falling for Alabama at home, it’s hard to envision a team like LSU being able to pull out a win.

The schedule is about to open up for the Tide, who will be significant favorites in six of the next seven contests. Now would be a great time for Alabama to get on a roll and start to make some moves as a group, if the goal is another SEC title and deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

The Tide is favored by 13 tonight. The game will tip-off at 7:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.