Tigers expect Tide to push hard on defensive end of floor
Uninitiated viewers might not have grasped the whoops sarcastically yelped from stands packed with Alabama fans after LSU point guard Anthony Hickey dribbled across half court last season at Coleman Coliseum.
Twenty-three seconds into the first half and only two days removed from winning a football national title, the crimson-clad horde reminded the Tigers of their gridiron brethren’s inability to cross the 50-yard line.
Fittingly, the basic premise applies when the Tigers (13-7, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) arrive at 7 p.m. Saturday to face Alabama (14-8, 6-3) on ESPN2 in a tilt between ardent devotees of applying pressure and depriving opponent’s of critical possessions.
“They’re a very aggressive style basketball team,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said Thursday. “That’s something that they really rely on, that defensive pressure to create easy scoring opportunities for them.”
But no two teams may go about stifling and stymieing foes than the Tide and Tigers.
In Baton Rouge, where coach Johnny Jones team forces 14.4 turnovers and 9.6 steals per game, the intention is to speed up the tempo — using pressure not only to force takeaways but sap seconds a team has to execute in the halfcourt.
Where the Tigers prefer to run the opposition into the ground, Alabama coach Anthony Grant prefers the Tide to mete out a slow bleed.
The Crimson Tide force roughly the same number of turnovers (14.6) and steals (9.7) per game, but do it in seven fewer possessions per game.
Put succinctly, LSU will face another grating and lurching effort to speed up the game to its liking against one of the SEC’s more physical back courts in Trevor Lacey, Trevor Releford and Levi Randolph.
“They’ve got a lot of longer guys, taller guys,” LSU guard Andre Stringer said. “Since I’ve been here, they’ve been more physical than I’ve ever seen. They’ve been pressuring people. They’ve been turning people over.”
Yet Hickey, who scored eight points but was forced into four turnovers last season’s 16-point loss, voiced a confidence that LSU could ultimately dictate tempo against the Tide.
“That gives us a chance to go fast, go past them and play how we want to play,” Hickey said. “We know the press is going to be coming, and we’re going to work on that now.”
LSU’s peers, though, have a grudging respect for a press that has wrenched out at least 10 turnovers a game this season. Against Kentucky, the Tide clamped down on a relatively inexperienced back court of Julius Mays, Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow, a trio that scored 21 points on a woefully inefficient 9 of 32 shooting -— or 28.2 percent — along with six turnovers.
Afterward, UK coach John Calipari bluntly said the brutish Tide trio rattled his backcourt, and offered anything but feint praise this week about the challenge ahead of teams trying to executive efficiently against Grant’s squad.
“They controlled us,” Calipari said Monday. “They do it in a physical way. They’re not a afraid of contact. They want to bring it to you.”
On Saturday, Alabama’s press ultimately ground down Vanderbilt to force 13 of its 17 turnovers in the second half to fuel nine transition baskets in a 58-54 victory against Vanderbilt.
And it wasn’t as if Grant’s squad twisted the clamps any tighter.
“It was more a case of us just getting the ball taken from us,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said Monday. “We had the ball taken off the dribble two or three times. It wasn’t that they turned up the energy. It was just our guard play wasn’t very good.”
For Grant, there’s no alternative with a relatively inexperienced squad whose top four of its top five scorers are sophomores, and the only senior is Andrew Steele coming off the bench at roughly 19 points per game.
“For us to have a chance on any given night, we’ve got to bring a level of effort consistently,” Grant said.
“We’re in the process of doing that. I appreciate the complements, and certainly for our guys we’re beginning to understand who we are as a basketball team.”
LSU can offer up an ample rebuttal, though. The Tigers averaged just 12.1 turnovers — an ideal average for Jones — during a five-game span and committed a season-low eight against the nation’s most-efficient defensive team in Florida.
“We have the ability sometimes to get out in the open floor and make some plays,” Jones said. “Teams will back their press off because of our quickness. Once we get through that first wave, our guys have been able to make good decisions on the back side of it.”
There’s the question, though, of the cumulative toll LSU can endure down the stretch.
The Tide are fairly average defensively in SEC play, ranking third in points allowed (58.3) but seventh in field-goal defense and three-point defense. Their physicality that puts them in situations to execute in late game situations.
“If you’re avoiding it you’ve got no chance of winning the game,” Calipari said. “It wears you down. By the end of the game, you’re turning it over, you’re missing a shot you shouldn’t miss. You’re beat up and miss free throws.”
Asked about the likely style Saturday, Hickey assumed a nudge toward Alabama’s desires.
“The refs going to let them play, and they’re let us play, too,” he said. It’s going to be about who’s getting rebounds and who’s getting stops.”
Oh, and applying another lesson from a year ago, too.
“Their crowd (will) be into also,” Hickey said. “You’ve got to stay under control. I’ve experienced what it’s like.”