CHARLOTTE AMALIE, Virgin Islands — Considering his freshman- and sophomore-laden team hasn’t been together for all that long, an extended road trip early in the season isn’t such a bad thing for LSU coach Johnny Jones.
The way Jones sees it, it can be an invaluable tool for a team that, in the early stages of the season, can use as much time together as possible — both on and off the court.
Which is why the Tigers’ trip to the Virgin Islands, where they’ll play three games in four days starting with Friday’s 5:30 p.m. matchup with Old Dominion, is vital to his youthful team’s continued development.
While the island destination makes it a lot easier, of course, LSU (2-0) knows there is much work to do beginning with its game against Old Dominion (2-0).
The Tigers will also face either Illinois State or Weber State on Saturday or Sunday, depending on the outcome of their first-round game, before a Monday finale with a team from the other side of the eight-team tournament bracket — either Clemson, Nevada, Seton Hall or Gardner-Webb.
“When you take teams on a trip like that and you’re away, it’s a special time for bonding, teaching and closeness — especially in the early part of the season,” Jones said. “That’s something we look forward to.
“It’s great because it’s going to simulate a late-season tournament, whether it is the conference tournament or post-season, and we’ll get an opportunity for our guys to understand how quick the turnarounds are in preparation. It will be really good for us.”
That’s certainly another important piece to the trip.
While LSU won its first two games against Gardner-Webb and Texas Tech, the Tigers remain a work in progress — particularly on defense.
Gardner-Webb scored 82 points and Texas Tech shot 48.3 percent from the field in the first half Tuesday night to take a 12-point lead to the locker room.
The good news for Jones is his team scored enough to hold off Gardner-Webb and increased the defensive intensity in a 69-64 overtime win over Texas Tech, holding the Red Raiders to just 28 points in the second half and extra period.
The Tigers also came alive on offense after making 10 of 35 field-goal attempts in the opening half and did enough to overcome the Red Raiders.
“Texas Tech is a very tough defensive team; they’re hard to score against and rebound the ball extremely well,” Jones said. “We needed that in the early part of the season. We needed to be challenged, and in this tournament we’re certainly going to be challenged.”
Their late-night performance against Texas Tech helped LSU make an early-morning wakeup call and 6 a.m. flight much more enjoyable.
“It’s an early flight, but at least we’re flying out on a win,” guard Josh Gray said. “That’s always good. All we have to do is get ready and get refocused, and win this tournament.”
Even though there will be some time for fun, Gray said the goal is to keep improving.
“We’re approaching this as a business trip,” he said. “We’re not going out there to swim and go to the beach. We’re not trying to go out. It’s one mindset: win the tournament.”
The tournament presents the Tigers with an opportunity to build on what it has done in the first two games against quality opponents, Jones said.
“It’s going to be real important because these two (home) games we had served a great purpose,” he said, noting how his team handled adversity against Texas Tech. “We know we can fight back from a deficit and we’ve got to make sure we’re cognizant of that and really understand that.
“That’s really important for our team,” he added. “I think it’s better going (to the tournament) after two games like that than if we had two big blowout wins. There’s going to be some stiff competition over there.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.