It was the end of November the last time the LSU Tigers went to South Carolina for a basketball game.
It looked like it might as well have been the end of their season right there.
In a jumping gym at Charleston, the Tigers failed to leave the launch pad. Goliath fell behind the David-minded Cougars 39-17 at halftime, in 20 minutes of action that looked as bad for LSU as the score indicated.
The Tigers managed to avoid total embarrassment and close the gap to 70-58 by game’s end, but the loss marked the end of a three-game losing streak that dropped LSU to 3-3 at that point. The loss to Charleston, coming after back-to-back defeats in New York against Marquette and North Carolina State, looked like three torpedo hits to LSU’s NCAA tournament hopes even before they could take on any semblance of reality.
Senior guard Keith Hornsby didn’t play in the Charleston game because he was still sidelined by offseason sports hernia surgery, but he did make the trip. More than an interested bystander, he was a sickened spectator.
“That was our first true road game,” Hornsby said. “It was like an SEC environment there. We had no real chemistry on offense. Everyone was looking at each other to see who else was going to make a play.
“Because of the losses in New York where we took some gambles on defense we shouldn’t have, everyone was standing around. They didn’t want to be blamed.”
Ten weeks later, the Tigers are traveling back to South Carolina for a road game, one that surprisingly could go a long way to shaping the Southeastern Conference title chase.
They have Hornsby now, with his hitchy but effective 3-point jumper and lunch-pail work ethic. They have forward Craig Victor, too, who pairs inside physicality with a surprisingly silky jump shot. They’re LSU’s second- and third-leading scorers on the team behind Ben Simmons, and their contribution since the start of SEC play to LSU’s rise to the top of the SEC standings can’t be underestimated.
But there’s something more to the Tigers on this visit to the Palmetto State than more available warm bodies.
There’s chemistry and brewing confidence with this team, whose only losses since the calendar flipped to 2016 have been at Florida and at Texas A&M and at home against then No. 1-ranked Oklahoma.
Simmons has been a steady force, scoring and rebounding and dishing out assists like he’s trying to win over voters in a presidential primary. But he’s even more effective when Hornsby and fellow freshman Antonio Blakeney — thawed out from that midwinter shooting slump to the tune of a career-high 31 points Saturday against Mississippi State — are dropping in 3-pointers like Carolina Panthers dropping Super Bowl passes (too soon?). LSU played so well against State they could have the mercurial Tim Quarterman (18 points against Oklahoma, 16 combined against Auburn and State) basically an offensive non-factor and not be fazed.
“We’re a lot more mature now,” Simmons said. “A lot more guys have stepped up their games and bought into the system.”
That would be a good thing for LSU (15-8, 8-2 SEC), which is steaming toward what may be its most pivotal week of the season. After South Carolina (20-3, 7-3) comes a home-court rematch Sunday against No. 15 Texas A&M (18-5, 7-3).
These games are crucial to shaping LSU’s NCAA résumé. The Tigers were No. 75 in Monday’s NCAA RPI. That means LSU is continuing to dance on a razor’s edge when it comes to the Big Dance.
Intangibles don’t say by any means that these Tigers are a lock to win these next two games. Even a split would be palatable in regards to the SEC race overall and the ever-wary eye on LSU’s NCAA tournament prospects.
Jones has maintained all along that his team would improve as it got deeper into the season. So far his crystal ball is on pace with LSU’s blossoming expectations. Or rather, its blossoming potential.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons, but we’re still young and learning,” Jones said. “We’ll continue to grow.
“I always look at February and March as the goal that you are hopeful that you have implemented your system and guys are playing the right way. That you’ve put in enough things and they understand pace of play, what’s expected of them.
“In February, we should be further along. Not saying that we will win all of our games, but that we should be prepared to play better in them and understand what’s expected of us.”
The last time LSU went to South Carolina, the Tigers were a collection of talented individuals in search of a team.
This time, a team goes back, in search of something that in November looked like it could never be.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.