Freshmen lead LSU to 78-66 victory over South Alabama Thursday night _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- After missing the first seven games of the season following surgery, LSU guard Keith Hornsby returns to action Sunday at Houston. Hornsby was a leader on the court, as well as averaging 13.4 points and 4.2 rebounds last season.

After seven games, the LSU men’s basketball team will have its glue back Sunday.

The return of senior guard Keith Hornsby isn’t coming a minute too soon, considering the Tigers are entering an important five-game stretch that will take them into Southeastern Conference in early January.

While LSU hasn’t fallen apart with Hornsby sitting out the first seven games after having sports hernia surgery, coach Johnny Jones will welcome back one of only two seniors on his roster Sunday when the Tigers face Houston at 4:30 p.m. in Hofheinz Pavilion.

Jones didn’t know Friday how many minutes Hornsby will play against Houston, but that’s not a concern at this point.

What’s more important, Jones indicated, was just having Hornsby back for whatever he can give LSU (4-3) with his offense, defense and other qualities against Houston (5-1) and the four games that will follow.

On Friday, Jones quickly identified the 6-foot-4 Hornsby as the glue of last year’s team that went 22-11 and earned an NCAA tournament bid.

Hornsby was the only player to start all 33 games and was energetic on both ends of the floor while providing leadership to a young team that struggled at times to finish games.

That’s why Hornsby’s name came up when Jones was asked who would step up and be the glue guys this season.

“At seven games in, it’s hard to say because we haven’t had our core of guys together,” Jones said. “We’ve had guys down and have missed games for various reasons. We think in the next couple of weeks those people will show up. At some point, we look forward to that.”

With Hornsby back, the next step will be to get 6-9 forward Craig Victor on the court after sitting out the fall semester following his transfer from Arizona. He could make his LSU debut Wednesday night.

While it’s hard to say if Hornsby would have made the difference in LSU’s two losses in the Legends Classic in New York, games the Tigers could have won, it wouldn’t have hurt to have him in crunch time.

He also likely would have been a calming influence on a team that was blown out in its first true road game this season at the College of Charleston.

Like Jones, the Tigers are certainly excited to get Hornsby back — even if he’ll be coming off the bench for a few games to get back into a groove.

“It’s big-time for me and the team because we know he can knock down big shots,” forward Ben Simmons said. “He’s a senior, so he’s one of the guys that gives us energy and is another leader on the court.

“It’s just not me and Tim (Quarterman) and Josh (Gray) on the court. Keith is always trying to talk to guys and be himself as well. He really gives a lot of knowledge to a lot of players on the team.”

Now, it’s just a matter of finding out how much Hornsby will be able to give the Tigers in his season debut and beyond.

Hornsby, who had to wait 17 months to play his first game with LSU a year ago after transferring from UNC-Asheville, said not being able to play for the past 40 days was far worse.

“This year, you kind of ask yourself what (the record) would have been like if this whole thing didn’t happen,” said Hornsby, who averaged 13.4 points and 4.2 rebounds and hit 39.3 percent of his 3-point shots. “That’s been the toughest part. Our record kind of affected my feeling on that.”

Hornsby said he believes it’s all behind him, even though he still has some lingering soreness.

But he said he believes it won’t be a hindrance to his game, whether it’s getting up and down the court at top speed, penetrating the lane for layups and short jumpers, or playing sticky defense.

“It’s a great feeling to be back, but I’m trying not to be too excited,” Hornsby said. “If I get too excited, it’ll affect the way I play some, and I don’t want to put pressure on myself.

“Of course, I’m excited that it’s feeling really well. There is still some soreness, but that’s to be expected. It just feels great to be moving around and playing extremely hard again.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.