It is time to start taking this LSU men's basketball team seriously.
Saturday the Tigers posted their seventh straight victory, running fellow Southeastern Conference unbeaten South Carolina right out of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. LSU won 89-67, out-rebounding Frank Martin’s beefier and always well-schooled Gamecocks 49-29 for its 17th straight home win.
More than the final score — LSU led by as many as 33 points in the second half before coasting into victory formation — that rebounding stat is a great sign of the Tigers’ recent improvement.
LSU is 14-3. It is 4-0 in the SEC, the conference’s only unbeaten aside from No. 1-ranked Tennessee (16-1, 5-0). The Tigers are ranked at No. 25 in Monday's Associated Press poll. Meanwhile, RealtimeRPI.com had LSU shooting up 10 spots to No. 9.
RPI is not the measuring stick the NCAA basketball selection committee uses anymore, having switched to something called NET (LSU was No. 14 in that ranking Monday). And the selection committee literally pays no heed to the media and coaches polls when it comes to filling out its 68-team bracket.
But the polls do provide a noteworthy measuring stick of where this LSU team was and how far it has come.
The last time the Tigers were ranked was in early December, when they were 4-0 in nonconference play. That was before they went down to that tournament at Walt Disney World and got spun around on the teacups on the Mad Tea Party ride until they got sick, losing back-to-back games to Florida State and Oklahoma State. Then they fell on the road at Houston in late December.
At 7-3 following that Texas trip, it looked as though the glittering pieces of this LSU basketball team that Will Wade assembled might never quite coalesce into a potent whole. Too many point guards, perhaps, and still not enough toughness around the basket from Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, the latter named Monday as SEC player of the week.
But the Tigers are on to something now. They beat a then-ranked Furman team, won at Arkansas 94-88 in overtime and then at No. 18 Ole Miss 83-69, LSU’s biggest margin of victory over a ranked team on the road since 1981. Then the win over South Carolina, not a great-looking team by its 9-8 overall record but whose ledger included losses to Michigan and Virginia and a quality win over Mississippi State.
LSU will never be able to fill the void left by the tragic preseason death of Wayde Sims. It will miss Daryl Edwards, the utility player who recently underwent season-ending foot surgery.
But the more consistently strong play of Bigby-Williams in recent games — he had another double-double Saturday with 12 points and 11 rebounds — as well Marlon Taylor (10 points and six rebounds) has helped LSU’s frontcourt finally match the backcourt.
As for the backcourt, it is still led by the matchless Tremont Waters, who had 12 points and six assists against the Gamecocks. Keep your head on a swivel while you’re reading this, because Waters might just launch a pass your way.
“I think he is phenomenal,” Martin said. “He is one of my favorite players in the conference.”
While it is no time for the Tigers to start feeling overconfident, they now come into a part of the schedule that could allow them to extend their winning streak a long way.
LSU’s next four games are against teams in the bottom five in the SEC standings: Wednesday against Georgia (9-8, 1-4), Saturday at Missouri (10-6, 1-3), Jan. 30 at Texas A&M (7-9, 1-4) and Feb. 2 against Arkansas (10-7, 1-4). In other words, the Tigers will be favored to be a heady 18-3 and 8-0 when they head into the most rugged part of their schedule: Feb. 6 at Mississippi State (14-3, 2-2), Feb. 9 against Auburn (13-4, 2-2) and Feb. 12 at Kentucky (14-3, 4-1).
Look, a top-four seed in the SEC tournament and a top-four seed in an NCAA regional are and should still be the most realistic goals for this LSU team. The Tigers' depth is not tremendous. But right now, their potential looks vast, at least vastly improved from where it was about five weeks ago.