Fresh off a three-day Christmas break and facing their Southeastern Conference opener in four days, the LSU men’s basketball team will have to get back to business in a hurry.
With an eye on Saturday night’s league opener at Vanderbilt, LSU will still have to focus in on an improved Wake Forest team at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
While most coaches prefer to have one final tuneup after returning from Christmas, especially before diving into the conference schedule, LSU’s Johnny Jones doesn’t have that luxury.
That’s because Wake Forest presents a formidable challenge for an LSU team that returned to campus Saturday evening to begin preparing for what Jones said may be the Tigers’ toughest matchup to date.
“Most of the time, you come off Christmas break and you’re looking for that game to get your feet back under you,” he said. “We won’t have the ability to have that type of transition; we’re playing a conference-like opponent in this game.”
As a result, Jones said his team will get a better idea of where it’s at after putting together three consecutive wins following a stretch in which the Tigers struggled and dropped four of five.
For that reason, it may not be such a bad thing to face Wake Forest at this time.
“They’re an SEC-level opponent,” LSU guard Keith Hornsby said. “It’s a good example of the teams we’ll be playing every night in the SEC. So it’s not like a tuneup; it’s almost like a league game after a break.”
With games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida looming to start SEC play, LSU (7-4) will try to keep the momentum going from beating three nonconference foes in a row by 20 points or more.
In its previous outing Dec. 22, LSU shot 68.0 percent from the field in the second half and 61.5 percent for the game in a 79-51 rout of American.
The Tigers hope that bodes well for them, especially with the tough four-game stretch in front of them.
“There’s a lot more hype around the team now because we’re getting ready to play a lot of good teams in the SEC,” forward Ben Simmons said. “It seems like everyone is ready to play; everyone’s ready for a challenge and the competition.”
They could get it Tuesday.
Under second-year coach Danny Manning, the former Kansas All-American and longtime NBA standout, Wake Forest (8-3) comes to the PMAC just five wins shy of the 13 victories he led his team to a year ago. Included in its impressive early-season run are victories over UCLA and Indiana and a near-miss against undefeated Xavier.
Wake Forest could present the same problems that have been alleviated somewhat in LSU’s three-game winning streak, but Jones is still concerned about rebounding and his team’s defense play, although Hornsby and forward Craig Victor have helped.
Hornsby returned Dec. 13 after having sports hernia surgery in early November, and Victor became eligible in the Tigers’ next game.
They’ll be key, along with Simmons, because Wake Forest averages 40.5 rebounds behind 6-foot-9 forward Devin Thomas’ 10.5. Dinos Mitoglou, a 6-10 forward, averages 6.4.
LSU averages 39.5 rebounds despite being out-rebounded in six of its first eight games. Simmons ranks third in the nation with 13.1 per contest.
“They’re a very good, strong rebounding team because of the size they have in terms of their starters,” Jones said. “They come off of the bench with great length as well. They’re a good, physical, tough basketball team.
“On the defensive end, we have to constantly get better. The test we’ll have (Tuesday) will give us a better idea of where we are right now.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.