It wasn’t that long ago the LSU men’s basketball team was being counted out of the NCAA tournament before it even played its first Southeastern Conference game.
Remember? They couldn’t rebound. They couldn’t play defense. There was even a little stretch in which they couldn’t shoot the ball.
It was an horrific basketball trifecta that brought about much angst — outside of the team’s inner circle, of course — for a season that began with high expectations.
But after compiling a 7-5 nonconference record, in a span of four nights the Tigers became the Tigers everyone — including the 13,573 fans in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center — had been yearning to see.
On Saturday, it was a convincing road win against Vanderbilt, the preseason pick to finish second in the SEC race. Tuesday night it was an 85-67 beat-down of No. 9 Kentucky, the favorite to claim the league crown for a second consecutive season.
While the Vanderbilt win was a confidence-booster, the victory over Kentucky was extra special even if the Wildcats aren’t the same team that won 38 consecutive games a year ago.
“Our guys understand the impact this game had, playing a team like Kentucky that’s done a tremendous job and has certainly carried the torch for our league,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said late Tuesday.
“For our team to have the opportunity to play like that against a team that was ranked preseason No. 1 in the country (USA Today coaches poll) and picked first in our league says a lot about the way this team has played over the last week.
“We certainly don’t take it for granted.”
They can’t. Even though the Tigers woke up Wednesday as the only 2-0 team in the SEC, there’s still much work to do — starting with a game at Florida on Saturday afternoon.
It’s the way LSU, which started SEC play with two wins for the first time since 2011, has played since a 77-71 loss against Wake Forest a week ago that’s been impressive.
Remember the team that couldn’t rebound? It outrebounded Vanderbilt and Kentucky by an 86-61 margin, beating the former on the glass by 11 and the latter by a whopping 14 rebounds even though the Wildcats had gotten 7.6 more rebounds per game than its first 13 opponents.
Defense? The Tigers held Vandy to 36.0 percent from the floor in the first half and topped that when Kentucky hit just 32.1 percent of its field-goal attempts in the first half en route to a 37-27 deficit.
“Teaching these guys and learning,” Jones said when asked about the improving defense. “These guys are trying to get better. That’s a huge part of it. I don’t think it should be overlooked that these guys have done a tremendous job of trying to buy in.
“You have to believe to buy in,” he said. “They believed in what we were doing. They’ve done a tremendous job competing and playing at a high level.”
The change in course has been amazing with at least some of it stemming from what may turn out to be a season-saving meeting less than 24 hours after the Wake Forest loss.
“It’s confusing, huh?” said forward Ben Simmons, one of three players to have a double-double against Kentucky. “Really, we’ve come together as a team, just gelling. We have a goal, and everyone kind of got sick of what was happening.
“We really just laid it out and put our goals down, and everyone’s really stepped up and contributed to that. Whether it’s personal goals, everyone has to have the same goal and that’s to be the best team we can be.”
Guard Tim Quarterman, who helped hold off Kentucky’s second-half comeback with 14 of his team-high 21 points coming after the break while shutting down smooth-shooting UK guard Jamal Murray, said it’s been about sacrifice.
“Everybody’s making sacrifices for one another for a win now, no matter what,” said Quarterman, who also had 10 rebounds and seven assists. “Some people are giving up offense. We have a lot of scorers, but it’s about making the right play one play at a time.”
Like they did so many times Tuesday night.
“Good job by LSU, their players and coaching staff,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “What a great environment. We weren’t up for the challenge. We weren’t ready to compete at the level they competed at.”
Which is certainly a different level from where LSU was a week ago.
“The losses we took earlier helped us as a team,” Quarterman said. “It helped us get together, humbled us. Now, we’re just looking forward to the future.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate