After playing five of its first eight Southeastern Conference games on the road, the LSU men’s basketball team will enjoy a rarity over the next six days: three consecutive league games at home.
How LSU fares in those three games in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, starting with Thursday’s matchup with Auburn, could ultimately have a big impact on the Tigers’ chances of a high SEC regular-season finish and a possible NCAA tournament berth.
It’s the first time LSU has hosted three league foes in a row since 1998, when the Tigers had a four-game homestand, and it couldn’t be more timely after a 73-67 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday in Starkville.
LSU will play Alabama on Saturday, then face undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday night before going back out on the road.
At this point, thanks to its setback at Mississippi State that snapped a three-game winning streak, LSU (16-5, 5-3) can’t afford to think about anyone or anything else except Auburn (10-11, 2-6).
Alabama and Kentucky, especially Kentucky, will have to wait.
The difference in being 6-3 and 5-4 at the halfway point of the 18-game conference schedule late Thursday night is huge, but so aret three games at home. LSU is 10-1 this season and 37-7 in Johnny Jones’ three seasons as head coach on its own floor.
“The conference season is extremely tough, and being on the road five out of eight games is difficult — especially to start,” Jones said. “We understand the 18-game schedule. You want to make sure you do a great job of trying to take care of your home games, because the road is difficult.
“We know how important home games are,” he added. “That’s why we’re excited to be back in front of our crowd, who’ll give us a great deal of energy.”
Knowing they’ve already fallen at Missouri and Mississippi State — two teams in the bottom half of the league — LSU knows it can’t afford to slip up much more, especially at home.
Guard Keith Hornsby said the Tigers have to rally quickly — like they did after their first four losses.
“We kind of feel like we’ve been here before, whether it’s Missouri or Texas A&M,” Hornsby said. “We have to realize that now we’re home. We have to use that as fuel to go into these games with some fire.”
To that end, LSU hopes to be back at full strength for Auburn.
Freshman guard Jalyn Patterson could return after missing two games with concussion symptoms, and forward Jordan Mickey was hobbled by a twisted ankle at Mississippi State even though he had a monster game with 25 points and a career-high 20 rebounds.
Patterson is averaging 9.2 points a game and is shooting 46.3 percent from the field in league play. He has just one turnover in his past seven games.
“It’s tough to replace a good shooter,” Jones said of Patterson. “Any time you have guys that can shoot, it helps your offense regardless of what’s going on, because teams will try to take you out of some things.
“If you have shot-makers out there, it makes up for a lot of things. We missed that the other day.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.