By Randy Rosetta
Inspin.com/WagerWeb.com Contributing Writer
The highly anticipated battle for the SEC West Division starts right off the bat when 13th-ranked LSU travels to Tuscaloosa to tangle with No. 14 Alabama at 9 p.m. ET.
Over the last 5 years, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have played to a draw, 5-5. In fact, since the arrival of coaches John Brady in Baton Rouge and Mark Gottfried on the Capstone, LSU and Bama have divided 16 games down the middle.
Preseason predictions had the Tigers and Tide battling for the SEC West top spot, which they shared two years ago. LSU won the outright SEC crown last season with a 14-2 record.
Bama comes in reeling after dropping an 88-61 decision at Arkansas on the opening weekend of league play. The Tide fell behind 21-2 and trailed by as many as 25 points before halftime.
The Tigers wrapped up non-league play by surging past Connecticut 66-49 Saturday night in Baton Rouge . LSU used a late first-half rally to take its first lead 30-28 on Tack Minorís 30-foot 3-pointer as the half expired. Then in the second half, the Tigers relied on defense, grit and toughness to plug past the Huskies. UConn shot only 29.2 percent from the floor over the last 20 minutes, turned the ball over 12 times and produced only 21 points.
Besides Minorís heroics (7 points, 3 assists, 0 turnovers in 21 minutes), LSU also got a huge boost off the bench from sophomore Magnum Rolle. Filling in when Tiger All-American Glen Davis got into early foul trouble, the 6-foot-10 Rolle registered a career-best four blocked shots and grabbed six rebounds.
Davis was a force in the second half and finished with 16 points and 8 rebounds, while Tasmin Mitchell also had 16 points and led LSU with 10 boards.
Alabama ís front line of Richard Hendrix (14.7 points, 9.2 rebounds a game), Jermareo Davidson (14.1, 8.9) and Alonzo Gee (14.7, 5.9) could give the Tigers some trouble. The Tideís only losses have come on the road (at Notre Dame and Arkansas) as Bama is 8-0 at Coleman Coliseum and has won 15 games in a row overall at home, including a 67-62 triumph over the Tigers last February.
WagerWeb.com has the Crimson Tide as 4-point favorites tonight.
ARKANSAS at FLORIDA (7 p.m. EST Tuesday, ESPN): The Razorbacks come in sky-high after thumping Alabama by 27, Arkansasí most lopsided victory ever against a top-10 opponent. The Hogs take on another top-10 foe in the No. 2 Gators, who suffocated Georgia 67-51 on Saturday. Arkansas got a huge game vs. Bama from junior point guard Gary Ervin, who logged 18 points and 11 assists to earn SEC Player of the Week honors. Florida ís balance continues to be amazing, with four starters averaging between 12.4 and 13.6 points a game. The Gators have run off 12 straight wins at the OíConnell Center and havenít lost to Arkansas at home since 1995. But the Razorbacks lead the series 9-8, with all of Florida ís victories coming during Billy Donavanís 11-year tenure. Two games last year were decided by a total of seven points Ė an 85-81 Hog win in Fayetteville and a 74-71 Gator victory at the league tournament. Florida has an obvious experience advantage, especially in the paint where juniors Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah are combining for 37.7 points and 21.5 rebounds a game. Arkansasí strength is its backcourt, led by Ervin (9.5 ppg, 5.2 assists per game) and Patrick Beverly (14.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg), who is the SECís leading freshman in scoring and steals (35) and ranks second among league rookies in 3-point shooting (30-of-69, 43.5 percent). Those two have 131 assists between them, more than any other guard tandem in the SEC. WagerWeb.com lists the Gators as 13-point favorites.
SOUTH CAROLINA at GEORGIA (7:30 p.m. EST Wednesday): The Bulldogs have dropped four games in a row after an 8-1 start, but three losses came to ranked teams (Clemson , Wisconsin and Florida). Georgia gets a break from that rugged stretch when the Gamecocks visit Athens. South Carolina absorbed a 70-54 loss to No. 9 Kansas on Sunday to dip to 10-3, and begins a string of three games at ranked opponents after this trip. The Gamecocks, whose first four SEC games are against East Division foes, host Florida and Kentucky later this week before traveling to Tennessee on Jan. 20. Georgia remains one of the leagueís highest-scoring teams at 81.5 points a game, anchored by one of the SECís top inside-outside duos of guard Mike Mercer (15.5 ppg) and big man Takais Brown (14.3 ppg, 55.4 percent FG). Brown notched 20 points and 13 rebounds in a 64-54 loss to Wisconsin on New Yearís Eve. When healthy, USC guard Treí Kelley is one of the leagueís top playmakers (16.8 ppg, 5.3 assists per game). Gamecock forward Brandon Wallace ranks second in the SEC with 9.4 rebounds a game.
AUBURN at KENTUCKY (8 p.m. EST Wednesday): The Wildcats survived a major scare at Ole Miss on Saturday before prevailing 68-58, Kentuckyís eighth consecutive victory. UK ratcheted up its defense in the gameís final stages, limiting the Rebels to 2-of-13 shooting from the floor after they ran off eight unanswered points to take a 53-51 lead with 12:02 left in the game. Joe Crawford produced 23 points for Kentucky, which doesnít play a team currently ranked until Jan. 28 when it hosts Tennessee. Auburn opened SEC play by downing Vanderbilt 68-65 behind Rasheem Barrettís 22 points. Vot Barber gave the Tigers the lead for good with a layup and finished with 12 points. The sophomore is the SECís most efficient shooter from the field at 64.9 percent (87-of-134) and AUís leading scorer with 13.4 points a game. Auburn is 2-41 against Kentucky in Lexington and hasnít beaten the Wildcats in the Commonwealth since 1988. The Tigers follow their road trip to UK with a junket to LSU and then host Tennessee.
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