Last week it looked like the LSU basketball team underachieved in a 99-90 loss at previously SEC winless Vanderbilt and a gut-punch of a 91-90 overtime loss at Auburn.

And the Tigers may need a collective mani pedi to get all the dirt out from under their fingernails and toenails after clawing back from multiple 12-point deficits Tuesday night for an 82-78 win over a struggling Missouri team (11-13, 3-8 SEC).

But after all that, LSU still finds itself tied for first with eight games to play. And maybe it’s time to consider that these Tigers are an overachieving bunch in total.

LSU has no skyscraper in the paint to protect the rim. No one on this roster is listed taller than 6-foot-9 — freshman starter Trendon Watford and sophomore Courtese Cooper, who doesn’t see the court much. Senior Skylar Mays and sophomore Javonte Smart are a potent backcourt combo, but neither is the true point guard former Tiger Tremont Waters was. And without guard Charles Manning, who is finally expected to return Saturday at Alabama from a broken foot he suffered Jan. 14 at Texas A&M, the Tigers basically are running a thin eight-man rotation out there with Marlon Taylor, Aundre Hyatt and Marshall Graves coming off the bench (18, 7 and 1 minute, respectively, Tuesday). And when it comes to 3-point shooting, LSU (which went 3 of 12 beyond the arc Tuesday) isn’t going to frighten anyone.

No one would say the Tigers (18-6, 9-2 SEC) have as much talent as Kentucky (18-5, 9-2) or are as experienced and battle-tested as Auburn (21-2 and 8-2 heading into a home game Wednesday night with Alabama). But who really could have figured LSU to rubbing shoulders — fighting for a rebound, naturally — with UK and Auburn as they wage a three-team scrap for the SEC regular-season championship? Not anyone who watched the Tigers stumble through an 8-4 pre-conference schedule, looking not like a bad team but hardly a group worthy of a title bout.

“Trust me,” LSU coach Will Wade said Monday, “when we left the Staples Center we’d have signed up for this.” He referred to a 70-68 loss to Southern California back on Dec. 21, one of those come-from-ahead losses that would have been even more disappointing to LSU fans were it not lost in the glare of LSU football’s national championship run.

This team probably isn’t going to win a national championship or make it to the Final Four, though this sure looks like one of those anything goes seasons in college basketball. But it is a team that is going to fight you to the final buzzer, the kind of team you’d hate to see show up in your part of any tournament bracket.

What the Tigers mostly have going for them is a relentless attack of the basket. Yes, LSU got outrebounded 32-31 by Missouri and outscored 42-38 in the paint. But if you include the free-throw line in the paint it was advantage LSU. That’s because LSU went 29 of 34 from the line while Mizzou was 7 of 13.

You don’t have to tell Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin that’s where his team lost.

“It’s certainly not easy,” Martin said of keeping LSU off the line. “That’s one of the things that they do. They’re one of the few teams, in my opinion, that if the 3-ball is falling or not it really doesn’t matter because they can get to the free-throw line. They can make it up that way.

“They can get to the rim and get the offensive rebounds. We knew that. They do a great job of getting downhill with their guards. I think they’re the only team, in our league, where you have five guys and make plays off the dribble.”

Mays, with a combined 53 points against Auburn (30) and Missouri (23), has been particularly brilliant for LSU of late, and his fearless drives to the basket typify the Tigers’ offensive style. Smart (15 points) also came alive in the second half after only two points in the first.

But the key was the emotional, inspirational play of forward Darius Days. Epitomizing the way these undersized Tigers do battle, Days had a brilliant double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds), including a clutch 3-pointer with 4:43 left to give LSU a 72-69 lead, its first since the game’s opening moments.

“Nothing crazy about it,” Days said, before deferring to Mays and Smart. “Follow them, do what we’re supposed to do and win the game.”

With seven games left, four on the road and three at home, it will probably take at least a 6-2 run to have a chance at even a share of the SEC title.

Tough task. And the Tigers on paper shouldn’t really be doing what they’re doing.

But here they are, never seeming to be out of the game. And probably never out of the SEC chase.


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