I was 5 miles from Baton Rouge when my phone rang. My friend informed me, "Releford, Green, and Steele are suspended indefinitely and got sent home." I started laughing, and said he should have used somebody other than Andrew Steele if he wanted me to believe it. Of course, it turned out to be true. If we would have got this information a couple of hours earlier, we probably would have skipped the game and went straight to New Orleans instead.
Since then, I have been asked numerous times for my opinion on the suspensions. I do not have an opinion, because I have insufficient information to form one. I can only trust Coach Grant and hope that he is doing this for the betterment of the program.
I do not know what the 3 players did, other than "violation of team rules." Coach Grant has stated that it was something that happened in Tuscaloosa, not Baton Rouge. The decision was made Friday night and a graduate assistant drove the 3 home Saturday morning. (Sucks for that GA. I wonder how that conversation went? I wonder if they watched the game?) Coach Grant also said it was unrelated to Tony Mitchell, who remains suspended for conduct detrimental to the team.
There are several possible ways to interpret this turn of events. One is that Coach Grant has lost or is losing control of the program. That these issues should not be necessary in year three. Another is that perhaps he is being too strict and has unrealistic expectations relative to the behavior of 18-22 year-olds. It is also possible that he is setting an example, star players will not receive special treatment and we will not let anybody be bigger than the team.
Again, I do not know what these guys did, but I do have friends who know the Steele family fairly well and by all accounts Andrew is a great guy. Everybody was shocked that he was involved. JaMychal Green is a good player, and we sorely missed him in the post against LSU. This team certainly needs him, but one must wonder how many times a player can get suspended and keep coming back. JaMychal must have set some sort of record for number of suspensions in a career at this point.
So with only 8 players and 4 of our starting 5 suspended, we started 4 freshmen and Ben Eblen. I knew this would be an almost impossible task, to win on the road with what's left of this team, especially considering the lack of time to prepare. In the first half, we looked like a team that knew it had no chance. The players looked down and were just sort of going through the motions. We couldn't make a shot and LSU's zone defense shut us down. The score was 31-15 at halftime.
When we came out of the locker room to start the 2nd half, the body language was not encouraging. Guys were hanging their head and not showing any energy while shooting around. Tony Pujol huddled the team around the free throw line, and I don't know what he said but there was an immediate, noticeable change.
We scrapped and fought like hell in the 2nd half, but couldn't get over the hump. The first 5 minutes went about as well as one could possibly hope for. We made some great adjustments. We started pressing more, which was very effective in creating turnovers and giving us opportunities in transition. Unfortunately, we couldn't do it more because of our lack of numbers. We went with a smaller lineup that allowed Rodney Cooper to get matched up with the LSU PF. The LSU bigs could not hang with Mr. Cooper. When they came out on him, he was able to drive by them. He made a lot of mid-range runner shots in the lane. When they tried to take that away, he simply shot over them. Rodney's career high 28 was the most by a UA player this season.
Unfortunately, we had nobody to defend the LSU post players. Cooper simply wasn't big enough. Jacobs got going offensively in the 2nd half, but his defense is just not very good right now. Engstrom couldn't slow down Josh Hamilton, and the Moose only played for 4 minutes. We were able to make runs and cut the lead to 3 on a few occasions, but it seemed like #41 for the Tigers always had the answer.
I was encouraged that the team played as well as they did under the circumstances. As I said, Cooper and Nick Jacobs really stepped up. Ben Eblen did an adequate job running the point, but we are essentially playing 4 on 5 offensively when he is on the floor.
So, where does this leave us? As far as this season goes, we obviously will not make the tournament without getting some of these guys back. We really need ALL of them back. This loss did not really hurt us. LSU is somehow a top 100 team and it was on the road. Further, all of the teams ahead of us in the SEC also lost, so we are still only 1 game out of that crucial 4 seed for the SEC tournament.
Assuming all 4 are still suspended for the Florida game, I am actually a little more optimistic about our chances than I was against LSU. I know that sounds crazy, but they are not as bad of a matchup for what's left of our team. They rely more heavily on their back court, and we still have plenty of guards who can play good defense.
This was my first trip back to the Pete Maravich Center since they've done some renovations. The seating area is actually pretty nice. It is a good setup with most fans close to the court. For some reason they still have large wood doors on the portals to the concourse, which do not serve any purpose other than cause an inconvenience if you are trying to get to your seat with hands full of food. The concourse still needs a lot of work; it's small and lacking in amenities. Their attendance was pathetic, I would estimate only about 6,000 or so fans there, including only about 50 Bama fans scattered throughout. LSU fans have a reputation of not being very accommodating, but I think they get a bad rap. The Tiger fans who actually showed up were extremely nice and respectful to us. They were knowledgeable and cheered for their team, and allowed us to do the same. We even had a couple come up to us and congratulate us on the football championship. I've made several trips to Baton Rouge for basketball and football, and never had a bad time.
Up next, Billy Donovan brings his nationally ranked Gators to Tuscaloosa for a 6pm tipoff Tuesday night. I know it's Valentine's night, but bring your date, and your gym shorts. If you have any eligibility left, you could get some playing time.