LSU basketball coach Will Wade is hoping the return of another healthy body for the last seven games before the postseason will push the Tigers across the finish line for the second consecutive year as SEC regular season champions.
Junior college transfer guard Charles Manning Jr., LSU’s best player off the bench who has missed the last eight games healing a broken foot, returns Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. when the 25th ranked Tigers play at Alabama.
LSU is 18-6 and 9-2 in the SEC and tied with Kentucky (19-5, 9-2) and Auburn (22-2, 9-2) for the league lead. Kentucky is at home Saturday against Ole Miss and Auburn travels to Missouri.
“I tell our staff all the time, it’s just like, you know, we’re putting duct tape here and duct tape here and rip the tape off here and plug another hole,” Wade said. “It’s not like we don’t have very good players. We certainly don’t have much margin for error you know. This (Alabama game) will be the second or third game all year where we’ve had a full complement of players.”
The Tigers need Manning back for two reasons.
The first is LSU’s four remaining road venues are places where the Tigers haven’t done well in their last 15 trips – at Alabama (3-12) Saturday, at South Carolina (7-8) Feb. 22, at Florida (4-11) Feb. 26 and at Arkansas (6-9) – a combined 20-40 record.
Secondly, Manning’s defensive skills as a long-armed 6-5 guard helps the Tigers play better perimeter defense and he is an adept scorer without demanding the ball. He was averaging 9.7 points and 2 rebounds in SEC play when he broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in the first half at Texas A&M on Jan. 14.
“Charles is very helpful defensively,” said Wade of Manning, who will restricted to 10-12 minutes vs. Alabama. “What it hopefully allows us to do is to rest Javonte (Smart) and Skylar (Mays) so that they’re not playing 38 minutes a game and we can get a little more of a natural rotation.”
Wade said some of the Tigers’ funky lineup combinations, a byproduct of the ripple effect of Manning’s absence, has been one of the reasons for LSU ranking at the bottom of the league in 3-point defense.
“What we have to design our defensive schemes around is we don’t have a lot of players,” Wade said. “The number one thing when we design our defense to stop any team is how can we keep our guys out of foul trouble and try to keep the ball in front? And that’s why our three-point defense is so bad is because we have to keep the ball in front. You’ve got to give something.
“Part of our defensive issues are designed around we just can’t be as aggressive as we want to be. The only good stat we have defensively is we don’t foul. “
LSU beat Alabama 90-76 in Baton Rouge on Jan. 29. The Tigers led 51-33 at the half in that game, scored 50 points in the paint and had 20 second chance points while killing the Tide in rebounding 49-31.
But Wade expects Alabama, which Wednesday night on the road pushed 11th ranked Auburn into overtime before losing 95-91, to look like a different team.
Alabama (13-11, 5-6 SEC) launched an SEC-record 59 3-point attempts (including 9 in the 5-minute overtime period) at Auburn, in keeping with first-year coach Nate Oats’ philosophy of firing 3s until the cows come home.
The Tide enters Saturday’s contest ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring offense (83 ppg). Alabama is also third nationally in 3-point field goals made per game (10.7). The Tide also tops the SEC in threes made (256), threes attempted (731) and three-point field goal percentage (.350).
Three Alabama players average double digits, while six average 8.5 points or more. Sophomore Kira Lewis Jr. (17.1 ppg) leads the team and ranks fifth in the SEC in scoring average, while junior John Petty Jr. ranks second on the squad and 10th in the league.
Combined the duo produces the second-highest combined points by any two players on the same team in the SEC (32.6 ppg).
“If we can’t rebound the ball against LSU, we’re not going to have a shot to win this game,” Oats said.
Saturday’s game will be broadcast by play-by-play announcer Chris Blair and analyst John Brady on the affiliates of the LSU Sports Radio Network (Guaranty Media flagship in BR Eagle 98.1 FM). ESPN2 will have the television coverage with Kevin Fitzgerald and Sean Farnham.
After the Alabama battle, LSU returns home Tuesday to play Kentucky in an 8 p.m. start.