Six wins, six losses, and six to go. That’s where Alabama’s basketball team is as the Crimson Tide prepares to head to Baton Rouge to face LSU in a Southeastern Conference basketball game Wednesday.
Both Alabama (15-9 overall, 6-6 in the SEC) and LSU (16-9, 9-3) have exceeded pre-season expectations two-thirds of the way through the conference schedule. The Crimson Tide was picked 13th in the 14-team league in pre-season predictions and is now tied for eighth, while the Tigers were picked fourth and are now tied with Kentucky for the SEC lead.
Tipoff Wednesday will be at 8 p.m. CST with the SEC Network televising the contest.
Bama Coach Avery Johnson admitted that he has been “a little surprised” by Alabama’s success, which includes winning five of its last six games, including four in a row with road victories at Mississippi State and, in its last outing, at Florida. “Anyone with a brain would be surprised,” he said.
One of those games on the wrong side of the ledger for Alabama came earlier this year when LSU took a 72-70 win over Bama in Tuscaloosa. The Tide had a final possession, but wasn’t able to convert. The close result is no surprise. Four of the last six Alabama-LSU games have been decided by three or fewer points.
It is no secret that a big task for Alabama Wednesday will be playing against LSU’s fabulous freshman, Ben Simmons. The 6-10, 240-pound Australian is a certain one-and-done, thought by many to be the likely first player taken in the NBA draft. He averages 19.3 points, 12 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game.
But he’s not all the Tigers have. Tim Quarterman (6-6 junior) didn’t start the game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, but he had 11 points and 9 rebounds and made the game-winning shot by putting back his own missed shot with 33 seconds to play. He’s starting now and averages 11.2 points per game.
All five starters average double figures scoring with guard Keith Hornsby (who has started 50 of his 51 games at LSU) averaging 13.6 ppg, forward Craig Victor (6-9, 235) at 12.5, and guard Antonio Blakeney 10.9.
Johnson said that LSU is now playing its starters more minutes than was the case when the Tigers were rotating nine men earlier in the season.
“They are thinking NCAA, how far they’ll go in the tournament,” Johnson said. “We’re not on that side of the boat.”
On the other hand, he said, Alabama “is an inspiration to a lot of people. We’re playing team basketball.” He noted that Bama’s last game, a 61-55 win at Florida, “was one of our best finishes of the year.”
The key, though, Johnson said is to play good basketball in the first four minutes of the game and the first four minutes of the second half, and to minimize turnovers. “We want to go down there, play our best game, and try to be in position to win in the last five minutes.”
Senior guard Retin Obasohan, who leads the Tide in scoring at 16 points per game, said the LSU contest “isn’t just the next game; it’s the only game.” He said the Tide has been improving “not just the last month or during the winning streak, but all year.” The mission is to “come in, give it all you’ve got, and results will come. Our team is doing what it is supposed to be doing.”
A big lift for the Tide in recent games has been the play of inside post player Jimmie Taylor, who leads the team in rebounds (5.2 per game) and blocked shots (1.9 per game, including five against Florida). “Jimmie’s passion has infected our team,” said Johnson. “His leadership over the past two or two-and-a-half weeks has had a major impact.”
In addition to Obasohan and Taylor (who averages 5.9 points per game), the Tide is expected to start Riley Norris (5.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Arthur Edwards (9.6 ppg), and either Michael Kessens (4.3 ppg) or Shannon Hale (11.2 ppg). Hale has been limited by a foot injury, but has been playing more. He was wearing a medical boot prior to Tuesday’s practice.
This will be something of a homecoming for Alabama’s coach. Johnson is a native of New Orleans and played his college basketball at Southern University in Baton Rouge.
Although Alabama has an all-time record of 103-71 against LSU, the Tigers lead by 47-28 in games played in Baton Rouge and LSU has won the last three and four of the last five.
The Tide returns to Tuscaloosa Saturday to host Mississippi State.