Much about LSU basketball has changed since last year’s holiday season.
But when the Tigers (7-1) face Marquette (7-3) on Saturday afternoon at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, it will be hard not to reflect on their pulsating 67-59 upset of the Golden Eagles last December.
LSU turned the Pete Maravich Assembly Center back into the “Deaf Dome” for a night, rallying from an early 13-0 hole to score its biggest non-conference, regular-season victory of the Trent Johnson era.
Marquette was unbeaten and ranked 10th entering the game.
“It was a big game, and the fans realized it was a big game,” LSU sophomore Johnny O’Bryant said. “The crowd packed in. We were an underdog and we upset them. It was a really big win for us, and it really got our season rolling.”
LSU went on to rebound from back-to-back 20-loss seasons, finishing 18-15 overall, 7-9 in the Southeastern Conference and claiming an NIT berth.
Marquette reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
That was then. This is now.
Johnson left for TCU in April, standout center Justin Hamilton declared for the NBA draft a year early, three Tigers graduated, and two more underclassmen — Ralston Turner and John Isaac — ended up at different schools.
New coach Johnny Jones fields a team that includes a junior-college transfer (Shavon Coleman) as its leading scorer, counts another transfer (Charles Carmouche) as a regular starter, has three freshmen (Corban Collins, Malik Morgan and Shane Hammink) averaging more than 16 minutes per game, and starts a former walk-on (Andrew Del Piero) at center.
But the Tigers have been impressive as they inch toward the start of SEC play.
Behind the up-tempo attack Jones brought with him from North Texas, LSU raced out to a 6-0 start, then rebounded from an 89-70 loss at Boise State with a 66-60 win at UC Irvine.
The Tigers finish the three-game road swing in Milwaukee, returning the trip Marquette paid them last season.
“Anytime you go on the road, it’s always a challenge for you, like it was last year for them,” Jones said. “I think this year being back at their place will obviously be a huge challenge for us.”
Marquette, too, is a different team.
Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom completed their eligibility as one of the most prolific tandems in program history, leaving coach Buzz Williams without two players who last year combined to average 35.8 points per game.
But the Golden Eagles have the kind of size, with seven of their top eight scorers measuring 6-foot-4 or taller, that could present problems for LSU’s thin front line.
And there’s that little matter of what happened last season.
“I know they probably want their revenge,” O’Bryant said.
Junior guard Vander Blue leads Marquette at 12.7 points per game, followed by junior forward Devante Gardner at 12.1. Marquette holds opponents to 59.2 points per outing.
The Eagles lost to Butler and Green Bay by a combined three points. Their other loss was an 82-49 shellacking at Florida in the Big East-SEC Challenge.
“They are a very physical basketball team inside,” Jones said. “That will be a huge challenge for us, how we combat them and deal with their inside play because of the depth that they have there.”
LSU will take a brief break for Christmas after Saturday’s game, then return home to face Houston Baptist and Bethune-Cookman in their final two games before entering conference play.
Point guard Anthony Hickey said he knows exactly what he needs to get into the holiday spirit.
It’s not something that waits under the tree.
“This is my Christmas gift right here,” he said. “I hope Santa brings it to me. I know a lot of people are going to be tuned in and watching. They want to see how we’re going to play.
“That would be a great gift from Santa if we pull this ‘W’ out. I don’t want to go home with a loss.”