TUSCALOOSA — The last time Herbert Jones and Trendon Watford squared off on the same court, it was more of a back-and-forth “king-of-the-hill kind of deal” last summer, where winning pales in comparison to the fiercely intense one-on-one battles to the rim.
Of course, that won’t be the case Wednesday night in Baton Rouge, when Jones and Alabama (12-7, 4-2 SEC) brings its season-high four-game win streak into enemy territory to take on Watford and LSU (15-4, 6-0) at 6 p.m. at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
While slightly more significant than any of their previous battles, Jones is taking the opportunity to match wits against one of his best friends in stride this week.
“It’s always fun, friendly competition,” Jones said of playing against Watford. “Tomorrow will kind of be the same, but it’s just a team deal.”
Jones, the Crimson Tide’s junior defensive wizard from neighboring Hale County, grew up playing AAU ball alongside Watford, the Tigers’ 6-foot-9 freshman phenom from Mountain Brook High in Birmingham.
The physically imposing pair, separated by two years, still talk regularly, though basketball is often the farthest thing from their minds during those friendly conversations.
“He’s my best friend, I grew up with him, (we) played on the same AAU team, so I know him pretty well,” Jones said of Watford on Tuesday. “We talk all the time, almost every dayI talked to him yesterday, (but) we don’t really talk about the basketball-side of thing. We keep it on the friendship-side.”
Last spring, Watford chose LSU over offers from in-state Alabama and Auburn as well as Memphis and Indiana after a much-publicized recruitment that went down to the wire.
The Tide were certainly in the running throughout the entirety of Watford’s recruitment, but the coaching change from Avery Johnson to Oats set Alabama’s new staff behind just enough to allow LSU’s Will Wade to steal the state’s top talent since DeMarcus Cousins.
“We got in late on that. When I got the job, (Watford’s recruitment) was pretty much already done,” Oats said. “We tried to recruit Trendon when he wasn’t officially committed yet, but (LSU) had put a lot of groundwork in there. He’s a really good player, obviously. Everybody around here in Alabama saw him play.”
Not that Oats didn’t make the effort. The energetic 45-year-old former high school coach from Detroit put the full-court press on Watford throughout last April and May, but there simply wasn’t enough time to establish a meaningful connection between staff and prospect.
Not even Watford’s friendship to Jones made much of a difference in the end.
“It would’ve been cool to have him here, but he made his decision and he’s been doing well down there,” Jones said.
Watford is leads LSU averaging 6.8 rebounds per game and is third on the team in scoring averaging 13.2 points per game, but has topped 14 points in five of the Tigers’ last seven games, including a season-high 22-point effort on 9-of-15 shooting last Saturday in a win over Texas.
That performance helped Watford earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors after averaging 18 points and six rebounds in victories over Florida and Texas last week.
“He’s a talented player and I think he’s just getting started,” LSU head coach Will Wade said of Watford this week. “He’s a really good player and I think you could see that from the beginning. Now he’s just getting more acclimated, to use your word, he’s getting used to the pace, the speed, and things function. As he gets more comfortable and acclimated the positive results will follow.”
So far, the results have been extremely positive. The SEC-leading Tigers have won eight straight since a 70-68 loss to Southern Cal in late December, with Watford a key figure in that run.
“He’s really versatile, he can take you off the dribble, he can shoot – I watched him enough in recruiting to know he can shoot,” Oats said. “But he’s more of a driver now, kind of that mid-post, that old-school NBA where they’d get you in the elbow area where they played a lot out of, and he’s a smart player.”
So too is the man he could find himself matched up against Wednesday night: his best friend, Herbert Jones.
“Herb’s the ideal matchup – Herb’s 6-7, 6-8 and Trendon’s a 6-9 wing,” Oats said. “But depending on our matchups and their matchups, different guys may have to guard him.”
Jones has been on a bit of a tear himself, averaging 12.6 points and 7.8 rebounds while topping double figures in scoring in five straight games.
But it’s on defense where Jones rests his “hard hat,” leading the Crimson Tide with 386.5 “blue-collar” points and winning the team’s postgame Blue-Collar Award 10 times already this season. Jones also leads the team in “hustle” stats with a team-high 58 deflections, 22 floor dives, 15 charges taken, and 12 dunks made this season.
That said, don’t expect a game of one-on-one to break out between the two friends Wednesday. As Oats made clear Tuesday, the only way Alabama is going to slow down a player of Watford’s caliber is with a complete-team effort.
“They play through him a lot for a freshman, they run a lot of their offense through him, so it’ll be a good matchup,” Oats said of Watford. “We’ve got different guys that’ll have to match up on him. He’s their tallest player so our bigs have to be ready to guard him, but he’s playing the 3 so our wings have to be able to guard him as well.”