Jones returns as Alabama basketball faces pivotal test against LSU
The Crimson Tide has eight games left before Selection Sunday. Still, Alabama’s chances of playing its way back onto the right side of the bubble might require a win against No. 25 LSU (18-6, 9-2 Southeastern conference) on Saturday inside Coleman Coliseum.
“We’re kind of behind the eight ball as it is,” Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats said on Thursday. “We’re gonna make it really, really hard if we don’t pick this one up on Saturday.”
Wednesday night’s 95-91 overtime loss to No. 11 Auburn (22-2, 9-2 SEC) was just the Crimson Tide’s (13-11, 5-6 SEC) latest missed opportunity to get a signature win. Alabama is currently 1-6 in Quadrant 1 games this season.
Saturday’s showdown with LSU will give Alabama another shot, but there won’t be many Quadrant 1 opportunities left after that. The road game against Mississippi State on Feb. 25 is the only game that seems like a safe bet to qualify. There’s a slim chance Ole Miss, which Alabama faces on the road on Feb. 22, could climb up high enough to suffice as well.
Fourteen teams earned at-large bids to the 2019 NCAA Tournament despite finishing with a losing record in Quadrant 1 games. Ten of those teams, including Ole Miss and Florida, finished with four such wins.
Washington and UCF went 2-4 and 2-5, respectively, while Temple found itself playing in the First Four after going 2-6 in the top Quadrant.
“So this game Saturday (is) as big as they get,” Oats said. “It would be nice to have Herb (Jones) full strength. (If) we don’t we’ll play him when we can.”
Jones surprised fans and teammates alike when he came off the bench on Wednesday night. It was his first action in a game since fracturing his wrist on Jan. 29 when Alabama lost 90-76 at LSU.
The junior was only able to play seven minutes, but he managed to record three rebounds, a steal and a block all in that short span while wearing a cast.
“He is the best defensive player in the country in my opinion,” Alabama sophomore Kira Lewis said. “You know he blocked a guy’s shot with one hand. I don’t know if many people could do that.”
The cast severely limits Jones’ contributions on offense, but that might not be the case for long. There are two less-restrictive casts the junior could eventually make use of as the injury continues to heal, but it’s unlikely he ever takes the floor without something covering his wrist this season.
“Whatever he can on offense would be an added bonus at this point,” Oats said. “But on defense, we could really use him.”
On Thursday, Oats remained unsure what sort of workload Jones might be able to handle on Saturday, although he said it would be nice to double the junior’s minutes. Alabama team trainer Clarke Holter pushed for Jones to play limited stretches on Wednesday night so he might be more prepared for LSU.
“Live bullets, so he could get some confidence,” Oats said. “I think even as the game went along, you saw him got more confident that he could actually go up and use it some during the course of the game. It was big. … Shoot he fouled out in (only) seven minutes.”