Each season, Will Wade divides his team’s 18-game Southeastern Conference basketball schedule into three six-game segments.
With six league games in the books in a stop-and-start season, Wade isn’t looking at the next two or three weeks as being the toughest part of LSU’s schedule even with some big games coming up.
For now, he’s just thinking about the next six-game stretch, which begins with Tuesday’s 8 p.m. matchup against Alabama in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
While on paper it’s just another conference game, there’s no denying it qualifies as a big one as Alabama (11-3, 6-0 SEC) and LSU (10-2, 5-1 SEC) hold down the top two spots in the standings.
Adding some juice to the contest is the fact that Alabama crashed the AP rankings for the first time this season Monday.
Nate Oats’ team checked in at No. 18 and was 16th in the coaches’ poll, up nine spots from a week ago, while LSU received votes in both polls.
“No matter how the Alabama game goes, the next game is really important, too,” Wade reminded reporters. “If you lose it, you have to bounce back and don’t want to lose two in a row. So that makes it an incredibly important game.
“If you win it, you’ve got some momentum. So every game is like that when you’re coming down — when you’re in mid- to late-January — all the way down through March.”
After Alabama, the upcoming schedule includes a Saturday date with Kentucky in Lexington, Texas A&M on the road and a home game with Texas Tech in the Big 12/SEC Challenge to close out January.
But it’s first things first for LSU, which extended its winning streak to four games when it rallied to get past South Carolina 85-80 on Saturday night.
With a win over surprising Alabama, which drubbed Arkansas 90-59 on Saturday, LSU can climb into a first-place tie with the Crimson Tide in the league standings.
While Alabama comes to the PMAC on a roll with seven wins in a row, LSU is also on a hot streak in taking care of four straight league foes since an 83-79 loss at Florida on Jan. 2.
The Tigers have won at least five games in their first six conference outings for a third consecutive season under Wade, marking the first time that’s happened in program history. LSU started 6-0 in league play each of the past two years.
However, Wade knows Alabama will provide a challenge in LSU’s next test.
Oats has an experienced team with some talented players. The Tide’s top returnees include John Petty, Herb Jones and Jaden Shackelford, who were joined this season by transfer Jahvon Quinerly.
Petty, a 6-foot-5 guard, was named the SEC player of the week Monday after he averaged 20.0 points and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 60.0% from the floor and 56.3% from beyond the arc in wins over Kentucky and Arkansas.
With nine 3-pointers last week, Petty set the school record with 265 career makes.
Alabama leads the league in SEC games only with 84.7 points a game, while LSU is second at 83.7. The Tide also leads in scoring margin, winning its six games by an average of 16.0 points.
“They’re not just playing as well as anybody in the conference, they’re playing as well as anybody in the country,” Wade said of Alabama, which is first in field-goal defense and 3-point field-goal defense. “They’re playing phenomenal basketball.
“It’ll be a very stiff test for us. Our defense will have to be better, our offense will have to be crisper and we can’t turn the ball over as much as well."
Giving up easy points on live-ball turnovers has been a problem for LSU much of the season, and it was again in the win over South Carolina.
But at least the Tigers got defensive when they needed to in the final 6½ minutes, holding the Gamecocks to 1 of 13 shooting and forcing four turnovers in that final stretch.
“We were better, but we had to be,” Wade said. “If we didn’t play that well, we wouldn’t have won. So we absolutely had to be, but I thought we were definitely improved and definitely better.”