LSU has a chance to create some mid-January SEC basketball chaos on Tuesday night at 8 when the Tigers host league leader Alabama in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in a game set for ESPN2.
The 16th ranked Crimson Tide (11-3, 6-0 in SEC) are atop the conference standings, one game ahead of LSU (10-2, 5-1) and No. 6 ranked Tennessee (10-1, 4-1).
Alabama, picked by league media in the preseason to finish fifth in the league, already has wins over three (Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida) teams voted to finish in front of the Crimson Tide.
Now, the Tide gets its shot at LSU, chosen to finish No. 3 in the league.
Alabama enters the contest having won seven straight and eight of its last nine games following 90-59 victory over Arkansas last Saturday. That victory came after an 85-65 win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena earlier in the week. The combined 51 points in the two wins is the first time that Alabama has combined for league wins by 50 or more points since 2005.
“Alabama is not only playing as well as anybody in the SEC, it’s playing as well as anybody in the country,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “They’re shooting 40 percent plus from 3 in league play and they’ve got some really veteran guys with Herb Jones and (John) Petty. (Alex) Reese has been a problem for us the last couple of years.”
Injuries and illness have caused Alabama’s starting lineup to fluctuate. But three starters are for certain – forward Jones (12.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and guards Petty, Jr. (13.5 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game) and Jaden Shackelford (13.6 ppg). Center Jordan Bruner is out with an injury, so Reese (4.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg), a 6-9 senior, will likely start.
Alabama currently ranks first in the league field goal percentage defense (.366) and three-point field goal percentage defense (.259), is second in steals (9.3) and third in scoring defense (68.7).
LSU hasn’t had much problem scoring points. The Tigers rank second in SEC play in scoring offense (83.7 points per game) and field goal percentage (46.4 percent) and are tied for first in free throw percentage (76.3 percent).
Because of freshman guard Cam Thomas and sophomore forward Trendon Watford’s knack for drawing fouls, the Tigers have made and attempted more free throws (106 of 139) in SEC play than any other league team.
“LSU’s loaded offensively, we’re playing arguably the best offensive team in the SEC,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said, “Cam Thomas is probably their best freshman scorer since Chris Jackson. Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart are playing really well, (Darius) Days is a mismatch nightmare. We’ve got our hands full on the defensive end.”
Thomas averages a SEC-leading 22.1 points, Watford 18.7 and junior guard Javonte Smart 15.2 points. LSU hasn’t had three players average 15 points or more in a full season since 1973-74 when Glenn Hansen averaged 19.4 points, Eddie Palubinskas 18.3 and Collis Temple Jr. 15.0.
Watford isn’t concerned whether LSU will score enough, but rather that the Tigers play focused lockdown defense.
“We know we all can score the ball,” Watford said. “But that (defense) is one of the main things we’ve been working on. That’s what’s going to separate us at the end. I think we can definitely get better and put it together all 40 minutes.”
The Tigers must make guarding the 3-point line a priority. Alabama is swishing a league-leading 11.5 3’s in league play, led by Petty who’s 18 of 36 from deep. In Saturday’s 31-point pounding of Arkansas, he hit 5 of 9 3’s and became the Tide’s all-time three-point career leader with 265.