A return to Baton Rouge for his first game in his home state as a college basketball coach couldn’t have come at a better time for former Southern University star Avery Johnson.
In his first year as a college coach, Johnson, who accepted the Alabama job last spring, has the hottest team in the Southeastern Conference with four consecutive wins going into an 8 p.m. Wednesday matchup with league co-leader LSU in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Alabama (15-9, 6-6) has won five of its past six conference games after starting 1-5, a stretch that was capped by a heartbreaking 72-70 setback to LSU (16-9, 9-3) on Jan. 23 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
While LSU has also won five of its past six games in conference play to share the league lead with Kentucky, Alabama has completely turned things around going into the second meeting between Johnson and his close friend , LSU coach Johnny Jones.
Jones was a member of Dale Brown’s staff in the late 1980s when Johnson played at Southern and occasionally took part in pickup games with LSU players on both campuses during the summer.
Johnson said he still has memories of a regular-season game Southern played against LSU in the Maravich Center in his senior year of 1987-88 when the Tigers won 98-77.
“I remember getting in foul trouble the first couple of minutes; I always joke with Johnny Jones and Dale Brown about that,” Johnson said Monday on the SEC basketball coaches teleconference. “We wanted to go over there and play some good basketball, but it wasn’t one of our better games by the way.
“I have some fond memories of that game. Any rivalry game, or games like that, you want to prove that you can be on that big of a stage. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our best game.”
Later, Johnson and Jones came to forge a better relationship when Jones was the head coach at North Texas and Johnson was winning NBA coach of the year honors with the Dallas Mavericks.
Once, Johnson passed on a chance to take his team overseas for training camp in order to spend a few days working out on the North Texas campus in Denton, about 40 minutes north of Dallas, to help Jones.
“I’d go down there and watch his teams play and spend time with them at practices,” Jones said. “I also took in a lot of his games. Then we would have lunch or something like that on occasion when he was there.
“He has a son that played AAU basketball, so our circles would certainly interact there as well. We’ve spent a lot of time together.”
“Johnny’s been a good friend for a long time. … I mean a long, long, long time,” Johnson said at SEC Media Days in October. “I was one of the guys, even when I was still in the NBA, who was advocating and pushing for Johnny to get the job at LSU.
“We even went up to North Texas to help get his program off the ground,” Johnson recalled of that October 2006 trip. “So Johnny’s been a good friend for many a year, and we’re still very close.”
Jones noted that his team went on that year to the first of two NCAA tournament appearances in his 11-year stay there.
Now, it’s Johnson who’s trying to lay a strong foundation in his first college coaching job.
That he has to try to extend his winning streak against an old friend isn’t the most comforting thought. At the same time, Johnson’s return to Louisiana will have a decidedly home feel to it.
“We’re going to have a lot of family and friends there to support us,” said Johnson, a New Orleans native.
Since falling to 1-5 in the conference with the loss to LSU 25 days ago, Alabama has been on a serious roll.
The Crimson Tide, which defeated ranked schools like Wichita State and Notre Dame in late November, knocked off a then-unbeaten South Carolina team and beat then-No. 15 Texas A&M.
In its most recent outing Saturday, Alabama, which has a 37 RPI while playing the 12th-toughest schedule in the country, went on the road and sprung a huge 61-55 upset on a Florida team that was 6-0 at home in league play.
“They’re executing offensively, making plays,” Jones said. “They are continuing to learn from each other in, obviously, a new system that’s been implemented with them with coach Johnson.
“They are obviously becoming more confident with it. … They showed that, especially late in the game against Florida on the road.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.