GAME PREVIEW: Tide Rolls into the PMAC

I’ve settled into my seat in press row at the PMAC, and it’s time to roll out the pregame primer as LSU (15-9, 6-7 SEC) prepares to host Alabama (18-8, 10-3) at 12:30 p.m. today.

First, here’s our advance focusing on Johnny O’Bryant, a sophomore forward, addressing his potential NBA Draft prospects. In addition, here’s our weekly podcast focusing on this critical match-up for LSU.

The Set-Up

LSU dropped the back-end of its stretch where the Tigers played three games in six days, falling to Tennessee 82-72 on Tuesday in Knoxville. All told, the Tigers were doomed by career shooting nights from guard Jordan McCrae, who popped off for 34 points and 6 of 6 behind the 3-point line, and another 20 from point guard Trae Golden.

In the wake of that loss, it’s probably best to blunt: LSU needs a victory in one of these two upcoming home games to stay in the outside mix for an NIT berth. Right now, the SEC is only projected to land three teams in the NCAA tournament field. On Joe Lundari’s cut line, there are three teams in the first eight squads out: Kentucky, Arkansas and Bama. So the question becomes whether the SEC would get up to five teams into the NIT field. The loss to the Vols hurts, because UT is in the three team cluster with LSU and Texas A&M for one of those potential bids.

Ideally, a 9-9 finish in the SEC would help bolster LSU’s chances, but now that will need to happen against a closing stretch where all five teams sit between Nos. 26 and 72 in the RPI. Translated, LSU needs to find three victories against Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. A victory over the Crimson Tide, who have quietly crept into second place in the SEC, would help.

The Background

On Feb. 9, LSU rallied from a 12-point second half deficit and had loos to draw even late but fell to the Tide in a 60-57 loss at Tuscaloosa.

It was a game where the Alabama backcourt bullied and clamped down on LSU’s guards, limiting them to a combined 9 of 30 shooting from the floor and forced them into five of the Tigers 12 turnovers. O’Bryant scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but was turnover prone in the first half to finish with five, and was largely limited in the final seven minutes as the Tigers made their push.

For the Crimson Tide, Nick Jacobs came off the bench to score 15 points, while guard Trevor Releford added 12 points in a game where Bama shot just 35.2 percent from the floor.

The loss ended a three-game winning streak for LSU, who had used the streak to help pull out of a spiraling 1-5 SEC start.

The Keys

Guard Play: In Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s trio of Trevor Lacey, Trevor Releford and Levi Randolph were effective in applying tough on-ball pressure and slowing Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer. Both got going late, but for the most part the Tigers offense was funneled through the interior to O’Bryant. The Tide’s trio has a combined steal percentage of 3.3 percentage, which is a respectable figure. But they also average 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes, a sign they aren’t afraid to be aggressive in generating pressure. How LSU handles that physicality and whether they can find a way to generate consistent offense will be key.

Pace: I wrote about this ahead of the first meeting, but both teams press at different speeds. Bama only averages 62.0 possessions per game, which ranks No. 315 out of 347 Division I teams. As for LSU, they run 69.6 per game, ranking 40th in the country. Grant’s team will press to disrupt, it will run a 1-3-1 zone trap in certain situations. Yet, the Tide aren’t exactly desperate to get out and run. Bama defends the 3-point line well, allowing only a 31.3 percent clip in conference play, and force turnovers on 24.2 percent of defensive possessions. In effect, they negate the equalizer in long jump shots and make you squander possessions. On Feb. 9, the Tigers only had 64 possessions, a sign they did little to force the tempo in their favor. That will need to change today.

Balance in the scoring column: First, it’s been a positive that O’Bryant has averaged 17.3 points and 10.4 rebounds in his past 10 games. Undoubtedly, LSU needs his production. But against Mississippi State there was a glimpse of what happens when there is relative balance. LSU doesn’t need Charles Carmouche to pour in 21 points, or Andrew Del Piero to add in 13 off the bench. However, it would be a positive to see the guard rotation outside of Hickey chip in more and Del Piero continue to proved stable scoring and rebounding.

The Big Stat

 16.1 vs. 12.0: The first number is Bama’s steal percentage, and the second is LSU’s figure. Both teams are adept at stifling guards and forcing opponent’s to waste possessions. But, as I said earlier, this one may be a matter of which back court exerts control over the game. Anthony Hickey and Trevor Releford are two of the best in the country at pestering their assigned man, but it will be interesting to see which side is able to dictate terms and the flow.

The Prediction

Both LSU and Bama are accustom to tight games where end-game execution is vital, and I don’t see this one being any different. Bama is 4-5 on the road, showing they can handle entering another team’s building and set the tone. That’s what I see happening here, and the Tide have an X-Factor in senior guard Andrew Steele, who has a knack for coming up big in late game situations but is doubtful this week. Still, I like the Tide’s grit and road success to win out: Bama 66, LSU 63.