It is said there is a thin line between love and hate.
The line between good and great, however, could be a little wider.
Tuesday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, a good LSU basketball team got schooled by an Alabama basketball team that, while it may not be great, is playing great right now.
The Crimson Tide called in an airstrike that overwhelmed the Tigers virtually from the outset. John Petty Jr. looked like Richard Petty driving away from the rest of the field en route to another victory, dropping four straight 3-pointers on LSU to give Alabama a 12-4 lead just 3:07 into the no-contest.
By the 14:49 mark, just over five minutes into the game, Petty had drained his fifth 3-pointer, Bama led 23-4, and the game was essentially already over. All that remained was to determine the final score, a 105-75 Alabama victory that could have been much more lopsided had coach Nate Oates not emptied his bench. Actually, I think by the final horn one of the Alabama players was an LSU fan’s cardboard cutout being toted around by a team manager.
After he finished shouldering the blame for the loss, LSU coach Will Wade reminded all in his postgame comments that it counts for just one defeat. That he and the Tigers have to be careful not to turn it into two or more as they sift through the rubble and begin preparing for Saturday’s game at wounded but always dangerous Kentucky.
The showdown turned into a smackdown.
Wade is right. Whether by one point or a jillion, it only counts as one defeat. LSU is still 10-3 overall, 5-2 in Southeastern Conference play and only saw its NET ranking — the major metric use by the NCAA tournament selection committee — slip from 21 to 25 (Alabama shot up from 18 to 11).
But there was something else the loss said about the Tigers. This is a good team, with its four microwavable scorers in Trendon Watford, Cam Thomas, Javonte Smart and Darius Days. But it is not a great one. Does it have the potential to be great? Perhaps. But after Tuesday night, greatness looks like a vanishing point cresting just over the horizon.
In one game anything can happen, like Alabama carpet-bombing the Tigers with an SEC single-game record 23 3-pointers. Even good teams can lose at home by 30.
But not great ones. Can you picture someone going to Spokane and beating Gonzaga by 30? Or going to Waco and beating Baylor by 30? How about drilling Iowa by that many on its home floor?
The answer is no.
Wade’s best team was of course the squad two years ago that went 28-7, won the SEC regular-season title and reached the Sweet 16 stage of the NCAA tournament with him in NCAA-allegation exile. That team had outside scorers and inside presence. It also had a great point guard in Tremont Waters who led the team in scoring and made everyone around him better.
Smart is an excellent player but far from a true point guard. His assist-to-turnover ratio is only 1.45, compared to Waters’ 1.68 in 2018-19. Even bleaker for the Tigers is their team assist-to turnover ratio of 0.93. That ranks 203rd in Division I basketball.
And that doesn’t spell great.
Freshman guard Jalen Cook from Walker more aptly fits that bill, but he played only 12 minutes Tuesday with three points and no assists. So does fellow freshman Eric Gaines, who played 8½ minutes with no points or assists but two steals.
Is this the time to try to go to one of those players and move Smart back into more of a shooting guard role? Perhaps, but midway through the season the Tigers’ cake is pretty much baked. Wholesale personnel changes not driven by injuries probably aren’t going to happen.
Alabama will probably cool off from its currently torrid pace. Bama is 12-3 and 7-0, its last three wins coming by 20 at Kentucky, by 31 at home against Arkansas and by 30 at LSU. If this really is who Bama is, then reserve the Crimson Tide a spot in the Final Four right now.
Barring wholesale COVID-related game cancellations, the road remains long for LSU. But can the Tigers contend for the SEC title and do more than scrap for a middling NCAA tournament seeding?
For that, it may take more greatness than the Tigers possess.