SEC Tournament notebook: Nate Oats’ brilliant halftime change vs. Tennessee sets up title date with LSU
What a day of basketball we saw on Saturday. Ole Miss’ NCAA Tournament hopes took a bit of a hit as Georgetown stole a bid by winning the Big East Tournament. I think the Rebels deserve a shot in March Madness, but man, they are going to really have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
In the on-court action, Alabama made a huge comeback against Tennessee, and Arkansas lost for the first time since January. Now, our SEC title game is set, as Alabama and LSU will meet up for the title (1 p.m, Sunday, ESPN).
Before we preview that game, let’s take a look back at what happened in Saturday’s semifinals:
Alabama over Tennessee
At halftime of Saturday’s first semifinal game, No. 1 seed Alabama trailed No. 4 seed Tennessee 40-31. The Vols’ lead grew to 15 in the second half. But Alabama slowly started chipping away after that.
What changed from halftime? Well, I went back and rewatched the game and found a big change SEC Coach of the Year Nate Oats made.
By my count, Alabama took 12 shots where Tennessee’s Yves Pons was the primary shot challenger (not necessarily the primary defender, but the Tennessee guy with his hand closest to the ball when the shot was taken). Of those shots, only 2 went in, accounting for 5 points for the Tide. Pons also drew a charge in the first half.
That’s … well, that’s not a good strategy. Pons is one of the top defenders in the SEC, so going at him is a fool’s errand.
In the second half, Pons was only the primary shot challenger on 2 shots, and neither came in the flow of Alabama’s normal offense. One was a fast-break opportunity where Keon Ellis went for a dunk and Pons fouled him, leading to 2 free throws (both of which Ellis made). The other was on an offensive rebound under the hoop, where John Petty Jr. had no choice but to go right back up with the ball, regardless of the fact Pons was on him. Pons also drew another charge in the second half.
So, while the Tide actually scored more points (5 to 2) going at Pons in the first half, it wasn’t efficient at all. They made their comeback in the second half by making sure they were attacking Tennessee’s other defenders and not letting Pons have a huge impact on the game.
That says a lot about Oats’ coaching. He made the adjustment at halftime. SEC Player of the Year (and Defensive Player of the Year) Herb Jones only had 4 points in the first half, primarily because Pons was all over him.
Jones finished with 21 points, meaning he scored 17 in the second half. None of them were against Pons. If you watch the game again, Jones called for whoever Santiago Vescovi was guarding to come set a pick for him. Once Vescovi switched onto Jones, Jones went to work.
Alabama only made 7-of-28 3-pointers (25%). But the Tide are so disciplined and so well-coached, they find ways to win. The second half was a clinic by Jones, Oats, Jahvon Quinerly, Keon Ellis and the rest of the Tide. This is a team that knows how to win, and they’re going to be a tough out on Sunday and in the NCAA Tournament.
LSU over Arkansas
Back on Saturday, Jan. 30, the Arkansas Razorbacks went to Oklahoma State and lost 81-77 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Then, they rattled off 9 straight wins entering Saturday’s semifinal against LSU.
But the Hogs’ hot streak finally came to an end. Despite 28 points from Moses Moody, LSU managed to hold on for a 78-71 victory to advance to play Alabama in Sunday’s SEC Tournament final.
So, how did the Tigers do what no SEC team has done since Alabama on Jan. 16? Well, to start, let’s update one of my favorite stats of the season.
LSU is now 18-1 when Darius Days scores 10+ points. The Tigers are 0-7 when he doesn’t play or doesn’t score 10 points. That’s insane. Days, for the record, had 13 points and 8 rebounds Saturday.
It’s not like the Tigers can just get Days to 10 points and call it a day, though. Days isn’t a dribbler. He doesn’t create his own shot very much. Instead, he’s a very savvy guy. He finds open space and trusts that his teammates will get him the ball for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
So, when he scores 10+ points, it simply means that LSU’s team offense is flowing. When he doesn’t get 10 points, it means LSU isn’t moving the ball the way it needs to and isn’t taking good shots.
Days only had 4 points in 15 minutes in LSU’s first loss to Alabama and didn’t play in the Tigers’ second loss to the Tide. We’ll see if he can be a difference maker on Sunday afternoon.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 LSU (1 p.m. ET on ESPN)
Key: Alabama’s 3-point shooting
Look, I know I just spent the entire first section talking about how Alabama doesn’t need to make 3s to win, but the Crimson Tide absolutely lit up the Tigers from long range in their first meeting this year. In Alabama’s 105-75 win in Baton Rouge on Jan. 19, the Tide made an SEC-record 23 3-pointers.
In the rematch on Feb. 3 in Tuscaloosa, the Tide only went 6-for-24 from beyond the arc, but still won 78-60 because their defense held LSU to 4-for-17 from 3-point range. The Tide were ice-cold from 3 against the Vols. So, the Tigers absolutely need to make sure that trend continues.
Alabama is going to play strong defense. We know that. LSU doesn’t have the greatest defense. We also know that. But, if the Tigers can keep Alabama from getting hot beyond the arc, they’ll at least have a chance to win late. In a conference tournament title game, that’s all you can ask for.
Alabama 86, LSU 75
Alabama gained a lot of confidence in that huge second-half comeback against Tennessee. Herb Jones looked like the SEC Player of the Year and was also the smartest player on the court against Tennessee. He’s an extension of Nate Oats when he’s on the floor with the ball in his hands.
If Jaden Shackelford (2 points in 25 minutes against Tennessee) can give the Tide anything against LSU, it should be a relatively easy win for Alabama heading into the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
I went 1-1 on Saturday, nailing the Alabama pick and missing the LSU-Arkansas pick. That makes me 8-3 for the tournament. I’m feeling pretty good about my Alabama pick for today, but that’s probably a really good sign for LSU!