An 11-2 record with two road wins, an eight-game winning streak, and a spot just outside The Associated Press Top 25 are all things the LSU men’s basketball team can be proud of at this point in the season.
But as far as the Tigers are concerned, none of it matters as of Thursday evening.
No one is more aware of that than LSU coach Johnny Jones, who knows the only thing that matters now is the Tigers’ 18-game Southeastern Conference journey that begins against Missouri at 6 p.m. Thursday in Mizzou Arena.
“You can take our 11-2 record and appreciate it, hug it, hang it on the refrigerator and all that,” Jones noted Tuesday. “But that’s about to go out the window. Eleven and two is what it is.”
What it is now is an 18-game SEC schedule against a league that had the toughest strength of schedule in nonconference play and ranked third in RPI among the power conferences. How LSU does over the next nine weeks will determine if it earns an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2009.
“This 18-game schedule that we’re about to be faced with in conference play, everything changes,” Jones said. “You can forget about the teams that didn’t do well in nonconference, the intensity level is about to be raised … and it’s about to go through the roof.”
While it all starts with the matchup against a Missouri team that’s only 6-7 after losing four starters and its coach after posting a 23-12 mark a year ago, LSU wants to get off to a faster start than it did in Jones’ first two seasons.
LSU dropped its first four games in the conference two years ago, then went 1-2 last season even though the Tigers finished 9-9 both times.
A strong start is vital this time, however, since they play five of their first eight conference games on the road — where they were 2-7 last season.
“The mentality we play with can’t help but change a little bit,” said junior guard Keith Hornsby, who will be playing in his first SEC game after sitting out last season as a transfer from UNC Asheville. “In the back of our heads, we know the importance of each game we face coming into this conference season. This is a tough road game to start it off.”
Even though Jones is wiping his team’s slate clean, forward Jarell Martin said LSU has to keep playing the way it has since dropping two of three games in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in late November.
The Tigers’ eight-game winning streak, the longest of Jones’ three-year tenure, has been put together with solid shooting — LSU ranks fourth in the conference in field-goal accuracy at 47.0 percent — rebounding and defense.
“We just have to go out and keep playing the same way we have been,” said Martin, who leads the SEC in scoring at 18.2 points a game and ranks third in rebounding with 8.9 a game. “We need to play together as a team and stick together. We can’t put our heads down if something goes wrong.”
That may have been a problem in the past, but this year’s team came back from 14 points down to win on the road against then-No. 16 West Virginia, and came from behind for another road victory at Alabama-Birmingham.
“I thought our guys have done a tremendous job of competing and certainly getting ready for game competition,” Jones said. “I think they’ve continued to improve each week.”
Yet even though he likes where his team is at going into conference play, Jones said he never thought about what its record would be.
“I was hopeful we would be able to continue to improve and get better each night,” he said. “We knew we had a tough schedule in front of us with the opponents we were playing. I’m really pleased with the efforts our guys have given and where we sit right now — especially with the way we’re playing.
“But we understand that the season is a journey for us. Each game is certainly a challenge.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.