Against what might be the SEC’s most talented and productive front line, a spectacular effort by LSU’s talented big men might be the only recipe for success tonight when the Tigers take the floor against Alabama.
While that doesn’t seem like a major stretch under normal circumstances, LSU might face a different challenge than it has over the last 2 1/2 years.
The No. 13 Tigers (11-3) launch the defense of the 2006 SEC regular-season championship against the 14th-ranked Crimson Tide (13-2, 0-1) at 8 p.m. at Coleman Coliseum.
What loomed as a showdown of LSU’ inside duo of Glen Davis and Darnell Lazare against Bama’s frontcourt of Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix has taken on a different dynamic.
Davis was in a two-car accident early Sunday morning, and although he escaped with no serious injuries, the 6-foot-9, 300-pound reigning SEC Player of the Year is stiff and sore. He went through a full practice Monday before the Tigers left for Tuscaloosa, and is expected to make his 82nd consecutive start. How long he can go and how effective he’ll be remains to be seen.
If Davis can’t go or is limited, or if LSU coach John Brady shifts his big man to a wing position to alleviate some of the body banging he would encounter inside, the Tigers may lean heavily on Tasmin Mitchell and Magnum Rolle to handle the battle in the lane.That may not be the worst thing in the world.
The lanky 6-foot-10 Rolle is coming off of the best game of his 51-game LSU career. In the Tigers’ physical 66-49 victory against Connecticut, Rolle supplied four points, six rebounds, four blocked shots and was conspicuously more aggressive and assertive than he had been all season.
“I talked to my Bahamas coach (Darrel Sears) on Friday and he told me to stay within the system, but still (be) me,” Rolle said. “He told me to cut out the (mess) and just do whatever I’ve got to do to stay on the floor.
“My main thing is to carry over the enthusiasm I had for the UConn game into Alabama, stay motivated and keep pushing.”
Mitchell’s role could be similarly enhanced. A starter on the wing and one of LSU’s top 3-point shooters, the 6-7 Mitchell has proven he could hold his own inside despite often giving up several inches.
He produced 16 points vs. UConn and led the Tigers with 10 rebounds. Mitchell ranks second on the team behind Davis in scoring (14.1) and rebounds (7).
“It’s very natural for me to play inside,” Mitchell said. “It gives us mismatches. I can go down to the post and rebound like a big man, but I can also shoot the ball like a perimeter player. I’m ready to do whatever it takes.
“We all hope Glen can go full speed, but if he can’t we’ve got a lot of guys who can do the job inside. We’ve got a big challenge inside against Hendrix and Davidson, but they’re going to have a handful with us, too.”
Regardless of who mans the interior for LSU, the Tigers will likely a defensive performance similar to Saturday’s.
Alabama stands fifth in the SEC in scoring offense (78.3 points a game) and is the league’s third-best shooting team (48.4 percent). All five Tide starters average in double digits, paced by Hendrix and Alonzo Gee — a player similar to Mitchell — with 14.7 points a game and Davidson with 14.1. Point guard Ronald Steele has battled through an injury-plagued season to lead Alabama with 56 assists and is scoring 10.7 points a contest.
“They’ve got a collection of players at any time who can beat you, so you have to be real aware defensively,” Brady said. “I don’t know if we can guard those post men straight up man-on-man the whole game. We’re going to have to mix some with doubles and zone and change it up on them. We’re going to have to know who we’re guarding, play great team defense in terms of helping and recovering and then keep that team off the glass.
“If we don’t have a significant team defensive effort in terms of stopping dribble penetration, guarding ball screens in different ways and rotating the floor defensively and rebounding the weakside — if we can’t get those things done then Alabama is going to make it difficult for us.”
The Tide found things difficult in its SEC opener Saturday at Arkansas. Alabama fell into a huge first-half hole and never recovered in an 88-61 loss.
Steele, a preseason All-American, suffered a severely sprained ankle in Bama’s 99-85 loss at Notre Dame on Dec. 7 and is noticeably hobbled — to the point where coach Mark Gottfried said coaching friends have told him it “breaks their hearts” to watch Steele right now. Steele has missed three games this season with tendonitis in his right knee and the bum left ankle and Gottfried admitted he’s considered sitting his star down to let him recuperate.
“We hope he’s going to get better, but I don’t know if he’s going to get better,” Gottfried said.