LSU opens second half of SEC play Saturday against Mississippi State; Tigers try to keep NCAA tournament hopes afloat _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU head coach Johnny Jones coaches against Oklahoma, Saturday, January 30, 2016, at LSU's PMAC in Baton Rouge, La.

In a crazy college basketball season — no one seems to know what’s up and what’s down — the LSU men know one thing: They need to put their best foot forward over the next nine games.

Thanks to six nonconference losses, the Tigers know they need to make up some ground in Southeastern Conference play to secure a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth.

That means there’s little room for any more slip-ups, especially after the Tigers moved into a tie for the SEC lead Thursday following No. 8 Texas A&M’s 77-60 loss at Vanderbilt.

With five victories in its past six league outings, including three wins in a row, LSU (14-8, 7-2) wants to remain on the upswing when it starts the second half of conference play at 5 p.m. Saturday against Mississippi State (9-12, 2-7) in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

While there have been periods of inconsistency, the Tigers believe they’re beginning to put it together and can’t afford to take a step back — like they did a year ago this week when they dropped back-to-back games to Mississippi State and Auburn when both were wallowing near the bottom of the league.

After LSU avenged one of those losses to Auburn on Tuesday with an easy 80-68 road victory, the Tigers turned their attention to Mississippi State, which posted a 73-67 win over the Tigers in Starkville last season.

“We just need to approach every game the same,” LSU guard Keith Hornsby said. “It hasn’t been like that throughout the year, but I think we’re getting better at that. It’s really the right time to be coming along that way. We’ve had a lot of close wins, but we’ve talked about closing out close games. We really can’t say the Georgia game (a 89-85 victory) was a good closeout, but the win is what counts.”

That’s why LSU goes into Saturday’s game on alert.

State’s only victories in the league came against cellar dweller Missouri and Ole Miss, which dropped four conference games in a row before winning its past two.

Remembering how last year’s game turned out can be helpful, guard Tim Quarterman said, just like focusing after last Saturday’s heartbreaking two-point loss to top-ranked Oklahoma was a key in the Tigers’ bounce-back win at Auburn.

While Mississippi State is struggling under new coach Ben Howland, the Bulldogs are third in the league in field-goal accuracy at 46.5 percent and rank seventh in scoring at a respectable 76.6 points per game.

While forward Gavin Ware leads Mississippi State with 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, most of the offense comes from guards I.J. Ready, Malik Newman, Craig Sword and Quinndary Weatherspoon — who combine for 46.5 points per game.

Newman, one of the nation’s top-ranked recruits whom LSU tried to sign to join McDonald’s All-Americans Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney, leads the group at 13.2 points per game despite getting off to a slow start.

Newman, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, is coming on strong — especially in his past four games, when he’s 18-of-31 from 3-point range and is averaging 15.5 points. For the season, he has hit on 41.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

“He went through a couple of things at the beginning of the season, like most freshman do, but he’s starting to come out of it,” said Quarterman, who likely will get a turn at trying to slow Newman.

“He’s good,” said Blakeney, who made his best pitch to try to get his good friend to come to LSU. “Malik can pretty much score the ball as well as anybody. Even when things weren’t going well for him, I knew he was working hard and he would have his time.”

Noting that Newman had a rough night in an 82-80 overtime loss to Alabama on Tuesday, when he scored a career-low three points, LSU coach Johnny Jones said the Tigers will have to be wary of him having a bounce-back game.

“He’s really been playing good for them. … We know how capable he is and what a threat he is out there on the floor,” Jones said. “I’m sure he’ll play with a certain edge here.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.