New year, new focus? LSU men’s basketball team needs to turn things around starting with Saturday’s SEC opener at Vanderbilt _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU's Keith Hornsby (4) scores on a layup in the first half of LSU's Wake Forest Tuesday in the LSU Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

After going 7-5 in nonconference play, the LSU men’s basketball team is in search of a fresh start.

With the new year comes a new challenge for the Tigers: finding the resolve to put some frustrating setbacks behind them and wipe the slate clean for Southeastern Conference play.

That includes a renewed sense of urgency for LSU, which faces a tough task early with matchups against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida in an eight-day span to begin its 18-game league schedule.

Kentucky, which visits LSU next Tuesday, was the preseason favorite to win the conference title; Vanderbilt was tabbed to finish second.

So LSU, which fell 77-71 to Wake Forest on Tuesday, knows how vital Saturday’s 8 p.m. game with Vanderbilt (8-4) in Memorial Gymnasium is for its future.

In the Wake Forest loss, LSU’s three-game winning streak ended after the Tigers in the final three minutes couldn’t come up with big stops and couldn’t get the ball to fall on the other end.

“It’s still part of the growing-up process,” senior guard Keith Hornsby said. “It’s funny because some things may not be affecting you for several games and they come out to bite you when you least expect it.

“There were things we thought we had improved on. But it’s a long process, and this happens to a lot of young teams. Now that it’s conference play, every game is that much more important.”

Which is why coach Johnny Jones held a team meeting Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the Wake Forest loss, to make sure everyone is focused.

Hornsby acknowledged the frustration the Tigers have felt while losing five of their past nine. They dropped four of five before winning three in a row, but that momentum was tempered by Tuesday’s loss.

While poor defensive play and rebounding were major deficiencies in their earlier rough patch, the Tigers had 17 turnovers — their second-highest total this season — against the Demon Deacons and shot 44.8 percent in the second half, when the game was there for the taking.

“If it means something to you to win, any loss will frustrate you — especially if you feel you could’ve won if a few things had gone your way,” Hornsby said. “It’s frustrating, but you have to tame the frustration because it can be a negative aspect, and that’s what we don’t want.”

Both Hornsby and Jones said the closed-door meeting was positive because it allowed players and coaches to get some things off their chest.

“It’s their team and it’s their opportunity to vent, to be heard, get some things clarified they may not have had a clear understanding of,” Jones said. “So we were able to do that. It was good. We have a young team, and we have to make sure we continue to explore and make sure they understand it’s a process. It’s a journey — it’s a long one for us.”

Wednesday was the perfect time for it, forward Craig Victor said.

“(Jones) really took the time to talk to us about the opportunity we have in front of us,” said Victor, who’s averaging 14.0 points and 4.8 rebounds in four games since becoming eligible. “Everybody starts out 0-0 in conference, so it’s a great opportunity to go out and perform and shock some people. A lot of people are already overlooking us, but that’s OK because we know what we’re capable of doing.”

They know they have to start showing it on a more consistent basis, starting with a Vanderbilt team that is strong on both ends of the floor.

Led by 7-foot junior center Damian Jones, a Baton Rouge native who was a preseason All-SEC first-team selection, the Commodores rank third in field-goal percentage (47.6 percent) and lead the league in scoring defense (61.8 points) and field-goal defense (35.8 percent).

But the Tigers say there’s no reason to believe they can’t start strong.

“We’ve had some bumps in the road, so this is a great opportunity to start fresh,” Victor said. “We just have to go out and compete and give ourselves a chance.”

“I don’t think anybody’s seen our best play yet,” Hornsby said. “We have some amazing opportunities (coming up). Hopefully, we can capitalize on them and show people.”

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.