NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The LSU men’s basketball team was going to have some motivation for its opening game in the Southeastern Conference tournament, no matter who the Tigers’ opponent turned out to be.
After earning the No. 4 seed for the tournament, which gave them a double-bye into Friday’s quarterfinals, the only thing LSU knew was it had been upended by all three of its possible opponents — including twice to Texas A&M.
But if LSU came here wanting to gain a measure of revenge for those two setbacks against A&M, when they let a late lead slip away each time, they’ll have to settle instead for a little more payback against Auburn.
After seven games of the tournament, LSU (22-9, 11-7 SEC) will finally get on the court Friday around 2:30 p.m. when it meets 13th-seeded Auburn (14-19, 5-14 SEC) in Bridgestone Arena.
The two teams will play for the third time in 37 days, with each winning on the other team’s floor. Auburn stunned LSU 81-77 on Feb. 5 before Johnny Jones’ team returned the favor with an 84-61 blowout 19 days later in Auburn.
As the scores indicated, LSU’s play was amazingly different in the two games and they know they cannot afford a repeat of that first performance when they allowed Auburn to be the aggressor on both ends of the floor.
Auburn, which came into the tournament on a six-game losing streak, advanced with a 74-68 victory over Mississippi State on Wednesday night and downed fifth-seeded Texas A&M 66-59 on Thursday after trailing at halftime of both games.
“They have done a great job of executing,” Jones said of Auburn’s mini-winning streak. “They are a very good defensive basketball team, and I think you saw that today against Texas A&M.
“They were down at the half and I thought they came back out and did a good job on the defensive end of the floor in the second half. They also shot the ball extremely well.”
That means LSU has its work cut out for it even though it battered Auburn with a strong showing in the rematch just 17 days ago when it shot 62.1 percent from the field in the second half.
But this time it’s a totally different scenario.
If LSU believes it has already punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament, as some national experts have, the Tigers aren’t showing it.
“I don’t like using clichés, but we just have to play every game like it’s our last,” said LSU guard Keith Hornsby, who has scored in double figures in 14 consecutive games. “That’s how we have to play, plain and simple, at this time of the year. Losing to them should be motivation for us.”
Hornsby was part of a strong defensive effort in the second game against Auburn when he and fellow guards Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson held Auburn guards KT Harrell and Antoine Mason to 20 points — 32 fewer than they scored in their win in Baton Rouge.
Harrell, the SEC’s leading scorer at 18.4 points per game, poured in 25 on Thursday to lead his team over Texas A&M.
LSU is expected to be at full strength after Jones said Thursday that forward Jordan Mickey, who was named to the All-SEC first-team Tuesday, will return from a bruised shoulder that sidelined him for last week’s crucial win at Arkansas.
“Jordan has been able to practice with us the last two days,” Jones said. “We don’t know at what level he will be able to play … but he’s been able to do a good job the last couple of days at practice.”
The fact that they may have clinched a spot in the 68-team NCAA field, won’t change the way they have to play, All-SEC forward Jarell Martin said.
“I feel like we still have to go out there and play our hearts out,” he said. “We can’t look at (projected NCAA brackets). We just have to stay focused on the floor.”
LSU signee Ben Simmons of Montverde Academy in Florida was named Thursday as the Naismith Trophy boys prep player of the year. Simmons, the consensus No. 1 player in the nation, signed in November. As a senior, he is averaging 28.0 points, 4.0 assists, 11.9 rebounds, 2.6 steals, and 1.5 blocks for 28-1 Montverde Academy. Simmons won the Wootten Award earlier this week … LSU commit Antonio Blakeney is feeling good about luring another five-star player to the program in guard Malik Newman of Callaway High School in Jackson, Mississippi. “LSU is very real in Malik Newman’s recruitment,” Blakeney said. “I think we’re going to get him.” Newman is the No. 4 player overall and top shooting guard on the ESPN 100 list of recruits, while Blakeney, who ranks right behind Newman at shooting guard, is 14th overall.