Like every NCAA basketball team that didn’t get to play a preseason scrimmage because of the COVID pandemic, LSU jumped right into the deep end of the water in Thursday night’s season opener with Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
After a strong start, there were ups and downs on both ends of the floor as the Tigers saw a 26-4 lead they built just nine minutes into the game shrink to two points in the second half before closing out the Cougars 94-81 in the Billiken Classic in St. Louis.
With what basically was a dress rehearsal behind them, there was little time for LSU to get ready for an even tougher game at 2 p.m. Saturday against Billiken Classic host Saint Louis University (1-0).
The game will be streamed on ESPN+, which requires a subscription, and will be carried over the LSU Sports Radio Network.
Saint Louis opened the season by crushing SIUE 89-52 on Wednesday despite 6-foot-7 forward Hasahn French, a preseason All-Atlantic 10 second-team pick, missing the game because of an injury.
But he’s not the only player for the Billikens.
Saint Louis, which went 23-8 a year ago with a NET ranking of 49, was picked to finish second in the A-10 behind Richmond. At least part of the reason is the return of the top eight scorers from last year’s team.
“This is going to be a big step up in weight class with Saint Louis,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “It’s going to be a big game, it’s going to be like an NCAA tournament-level game. They played well (Wednesday), and they didn’t have one of their best players.”
In the romp over SIUE, Saint Louis got 22 points from 6-6 guard Javonte Perkins in 20 minutes and 12 points and 11 rebounds from 6-3 guard Jordan Goodwin, a preseason first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection by league coaches.
Goodwin averaged 15.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season.
Saint Louis, which led 48-18 at halftime against SIUE, finished the game hitting 45.5% of its 3-point shots —which is something LSU is well aware of.
In Wade’s eyes, the positives in the Tigers’ opener outweighed the negatives — the most alarming of which for LSU fans was SIUE knocking down 13 of 27 shots (including 13 of its last 24) from beyond the arc. Most of them came from the corners.
“The first eight to 10 minutes, we guarded really, really well,” Wade said. “Then we started getting splits in the gaps; once we got splits in the gaps, we were giving up long closeouts and corner 3s.
“When we get split up, the top guy in the paint has to close out. That creates the long corner 3s and they hit some. That’s all stuff we can correct.”
LSU wasn’t bad, either, from 3-point range.
The Tigers hit 12 of 26 for 46.2% and went 6 of 10 in the second half after Darius Days got his team started early by knocking down three in a row.
Days finished 4 of 5 from behind the arc in scoring a career-high 24 points and freshman Cam Thomas was 4 of 9 as he scored 27 points in his first college game.
Trendon Watford was among the players who also came up big. The 6-9 forward scored 13 points and had a team-high seven rebounds, a career-best nine assists and three steals.
Watford also was 9 of 10 from the free-throw line as LSU shot 84.6% in going 22-of-26.
Wade also praised the play of several newcomers, including freshmen guards Eric Gaines and Jalen Cook. Gaines had seven points and Cook five and both helped LSU separate from SIUE when the Tigers held a 62-60 lead with 11:50 left.
Also, UCLA transfer Shareef O’Neal came up big in burying a 3-pointer to push LSU’s lead to 65-60. He also had five rebounds in just 13 minutes.
Those efforts, Wade said, are what the Tigers will need Saturday.
“It’ll be a big, big game for us, but our guys will be ready to go and locked in,” he said. “We’re going to play a lot harder and play a lot better play, and we’ll get some things fixed.”