In fits and starts, with key pieces and without, the LSU men’s basketball team is lurching forward toward the start of Southeastern Conference play.
The Tigers open the SEC portion of their schedule at 6 p.m. Tuesday, when Texas A&M visits the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Unlike Saturday’s uncomfortably close 86-80 win over Nicholls State, a Plan B game to replace a contest with Johnny Jones’ Texas Southern team that had to be called off for ever-lurking COVID-19 reasons, the Tigers should have linchpin point guard Javonte Smart back in the lineup.
Smart too had to miss the Nicholls game because of COVID-19 protocols, like LSU coach Will Wade had to sit out the game before against Sam Houston State.
Smart’s absence was keenly felt by the Tigers, who had to rely on freshmen Eric Gaines and Jalen Cook to run the point, 15 and 25 minutes' worth, respectively. The results were mixed, as they combined for nine points, five rebounds, six assists and three turnovers.
That said, it was a good experience for LSU from a coronavirus-disrupting perspective.
“It will happen multiple times the rest of the year,” Wade said afterward. “We’re not making excuses. It’s next man up. We’ve got to plow through it.”
The SEC is coming off what a successful plowing-through of coronavirus hassles and disruptions during the football regular season. The league pivoted over the summer to a 10-game, SEC-only schedule. When it was all done, only two of 71 games (including the SEC championship game) had to be canceled. All told, it was a remarkable achievement.
The Nicholls State basketball team proved to be anything but a pushover Saturday afternoon as a late fill-in opponent for LSU’s canceled game …
How well will LSU and SEC basketball fare in January, February and March as vaccines duke it out for control with the coronavirus? As Wade acknowledged, that is anyone’s guess.
“I do hope we’re kind of rounding the corner to get back in rhythm and really take off over the next couple of weeks,” the LSU coach said. “But we’ll see what the virus says and what the virus does.”
Thirteen. That is the threshold of games that need to be played for a team to be eligible for this year’s Indianapolis-centric NCAA tournament (the entire event will be played in and around the host city of this season’s Final Four). LSU sits at 5-1, meaning the Tigers must play at least seven more games to be eligible.
It seems like a modest goal until you look back at LSU’s December so far. A game in Atlanta against South Florida was canceled. A game with UNO was postponed. Two more tilts with North Texas and VCU were canceled, and the aforementioned Texas Southern game was replaced by Nicholls State.
Wade spoke of the prospect of SEC games being shifted around and replaced, even with non-conference opponents. The ability to adjust on the fly may almost be as important the rest of this season as rebounding and dribbling.
“We could change opponents with a couple days' notice,” Wade said.
The Nicholls State game was a good example of that. The Tigers were rusty after not having played a game for two weeks and had to muddle through without their All-SEC-caliber point guard. But they got through it, the mantra of the football season providing a blueprint for basketball.
The other question now is how ready do the Tigers look for SEC play? LSU’s ability to fill up the basket, to throw multiple double-digit scorers at opponents game in and game out is well established. Without Smart, freshman off guard Cam Thomas (career high 29 points), junior forward Trendon Watford (22 points and junior forward Darius Days (15 points) more than carried the day.
But just as threatening are LSU’s issues with defense and rebounding. Aside from a 101-point outburst in their season opener against UC Davis, Saturday’s score was the Colonels’ highest point output of the season. And Nicholls out-rebounded LSU 37-34 while forcing 15 turnovers with a pressing defense that always kept the visitors within arm’s length.
“There’s going to be plenty of improvement for us between now and Tuesday,” Wade said.
Is LSU one of the top teams in the SEC? On paper it would appear so, though half the conference has gotten to this point with one or fewer losses (Texas A&M is also 5-1), while Kentucky is a stunning 1-6. Only No. 8 Tennessee and somewhat surprising Missouri at No. 14 are ranked, but what does that mean with all the upheaval we’ve already seen?
It’s almost impossible to tell. But having experience at coping with the unexpected, as LSU did this week, should prove to be a huge asset.