The LSU men's basketball team is still in most NCAA tournament projections _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU's Tim Quarterman, left, slaps hands with coach Johnny Jones as he takes a breather in the first half of LSU's game against Alabama on Feb. 7, 2015.

Maybe this is a thing about this LSU basketball team.

Maybe they have to be pushed. Threatened. Ridiculed. Shoved to the brink before shoving back with something resembling fight.

There were no fights in Saturday’s LSU-Alabama game, one late-game entanglement between a Tiger and a Tider, perhaps, but nothing came of it.

If it’s a prelude to Pacquiao-Mayweather you want to see out of this LSU team, you’re going to go away disappointed.

But there was an extra measure of intensity exhibited but the Tigers in their 71-60 win. More drive. More determination. Less willingness to settle for jump shots and more motivation to play to their advantages around the basket and take the ball to the goal in the wake of two straight losses to two straight inferior teams in Mississippi State and Auburn.

It was subtle, but it was there. And it was needed, after Alabama mounted a furious mid second-half rally to once again test the Tigers’ resolve.

LSU had all the answers on this night, not by being demonstrative but by going back to the basics. The Tigers outscored Bama 28-20 in the paint. LSU went to the free throw line 38 times to Bama’s 19. That the Tigers missed 15 free throws is a disturbing side note to a big, momentum-reversing victory with No. 1-ranked Kentucky less than 72 hours from coming to town. But getting to the line that much is still a check mark in the positive column.

There is no dispute that the Wildcats are the top team in the Southeastern Conference, though like the Tigers they show a propensity to play down to the level of lesser opponents.

LSU can be, should be, the second-best team in the SEC. The Tigers just don’t know it. Or rather, they don’t know how to flaunt it.

Saturday, LSU gave a glimpse of the angels of its better nature. A miffed coach Johnny Jones shook up the lineup by adding Tim Quarterman and Jayln Patterson to the mix, relegating Josh Gray and Darcy Malone to reserve roles.

Gray and Malone were almost pushed into the stands, much less the end of the bench. Malone had three rebounds and no points in 12 minutes. Gray had one rebound and one turnover in 11 minutes and didn’t take a shot.

Their contributions frankly weren’t missed. LSU’s bigs played big: Jordan Mickey went all double double (24 points, 12 rebounds and only two blocks) on the Tide as he surged past the 500-rebound career mark while Jarell Martin scored 16.

Quarterman proved Jones’ faith in him with 15 points and eight rebounds. Keith Hornsby added 10 points, as it always seems coming up with a clutch basket. This time it was a sliding drive along the left baseline after an alley oop from Quarterman to Mickey that helped LSU stem a 16-2 Bama rally after the Tide closed to 49-47 with just over nine minutes left.

After LSU responded with an 8-0 run, Bama never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.

The win clears the decks and declutters the mind for the Tigers with Kentucky about to drop anchor in Baton Rouge.

It should be grand, a throwback to an age when Kentucky and LSU dominated SEC basketball. A packed house will be waiting for them, ready to rain down derision on the Wildcats. If we’re lucky, maybe someone in the LSU promotions department will remember the early 1980s when they dropped a suited Mike the Tiger out of the Assembly Center ceiling to unhinge the crowd and unnerve the Wildcats.

LSU can beat Kentucky. Really, it can. But the Tigers have to make their play against Alabama the base camp for their assault on the SEC’s Everest program and take their game even higher. If Saturday was a 10 (it was probably a 9), Tuesday for LSU needs to be an 11.

It’s an important opportunity for LSU basketball. Crowds have been growing and excitement has been building for the program, but fans were still leaving the PMAC with LSU down one late against Auburn. Too many LSU fans still regard this program as an entertaining diversion between the bowl game and the first pitch of baseball, not a life or death proposition.

The Tigers get this one chance to win hearts and minds. They need to make the most of it.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.