Nikki Caldwell is optimistic about her team heading into Southeastern Conference play.
She may not be able to find many other takers, though.
The LSU women’s basketball team went 6-6 in its pre-SEC schedule, the program’s worst nonconference record in 20 years.
Now, as the Lady Tigers open SEC play at 6 p.m. Friday at Florida, Caldwell is talking like LSU coaches usually do: about her team being a postseason contender.
“It’s a new year,” said Caldwell, beginning her fourth SEC campaign at LSU. “The optimism comes from the fact that, any given day, any team can put together 40 minutes of basketball. We have a lot of basketball in us. We just haven’t played our best yet.”
They had better start.
After Florida (8-5), LSU comes home Sunday to host No. 1 South Carolina at 2 p.m. Following a home game against Vanderbilt, LSU faces four ranked opponents in a row: Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Florida game will air online on SEC Network+ and can be heard on WBRP-FM, 107.3.
LSU was picked to finish seventh in preseason voting by the SEC’s coaches coming off back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
But the Lady Tigers lost three key senior starters off last year’s team, and NCAA tournament star Danielle Ballard, a preseason All-SEC selection, has yet to see the court. The junior guard has been suspended since the preseason for a violation of unspecified team rules. She has been allowed to practice but did not make the trip to Florida.
Without Ballard’s scoring, rebounding and defense, LSU has struggled to stay out of deep deficits at times. On Monday, in the final of a tournament against host Miami, the Lady Tigers fell behind 46-30 at halftime before clawing back to lose 76-71.
“We’ve stressed to our team that our identity is our ability to defend and rebound,” Caldwell said. “We’re about giving up 46 points in a game, not 46 points in a half.”
With Ballard in limbo, LSU has relied heavily on the backcourt duo of Raigyne Moncrief and DaShawn Harden. Moncrief is second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding at 10.8 points and 7.9 rebounds. Harden, also the team leader with 21 3-pointers, averages 11.3 points.
“We have five new faces on the floor,” Caldwell said. “We’re capable of being a real good team.”
Caldwell has platooned her available players and gone with a rotation of Moncrief, Harden and sophomore Rina Hill at point guard. She said she plans to rely more on Hill running the offense Friday.
“She does a nice job of getting us into our action,” Caldwell said.
Florida features a balanced attack led by Cassie Peoples (10.5 points per game), who is No. 2 in the SEC in free-throw shooting (87.5 percent). Ronni Williams has led Florida the past three games with 11.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest.
Note: Tickets for Sunday’s game are free, compliments of The Advocate. Fans may go to the women’s basketball page at LSUSports.net and print out a voucher that can be redeemed at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center ticket office on game day for free admission.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.