At the start of the Southeastern Conference schedule 2½ weeks ago, the LSU men’s basketball team faced a six-game stretch in which it played the top three teams in the league’s preseason poll.
In its 4-1 conference start, LSU overpowered preseason favorite Kentucky at home after dumping Vanderbilt, which was picked to finish second by a media panel, on the road to open league play.
But as it turns out, the biggest challenge of the season awaits LSU when the Tigers go on the road again for a matchup with No. 10 Texas A&M at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Reed Arena.
The Aggies were tabbed for a third-place finish in the league, one spot ahead of the Tigers.
Texas A&M (15-2, 5-0) was eighth in the USA Today coaches poll released Monday, which means the Aggies are the highest-ranked team LSU (11-6, 4-1) will have faced. Kentucky was ninth when LSU crushed the Wildcats 85-67 on Jan. 5.
Texas A&M presents a different problem.
The Aggies, who beat the Tigers twice last season, have lots of experience with four seniors in the lineup and plenty of length with three guards standing between 6-foot-5 and 6-7 to go with a 6-10 center.
For good measure, A&M coach Billy Kennedy calls upon a 6-8 forward and a 6-10 center among his top three reserves off the bench.
“Texas A&M is playing not only as well as anyone in our conference but is one of the top teams in the country,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “They’re sitting there with an eight-game winning streak, they are 5-0 in the SEC and they probably have as balanced of a team and experience as anyone. They finished last season very strong and are off to a great start. That shows what a great deal of experience has done.”
After drubbing Arkansas by 23 points in its league opener, A&M won its next three games by a total of eight points before manhandling Georgia 79-45 on Saturday in Athens.
The Aggies have a lineup that includes two of the biggest guards in the conference in Danuel House, a preseason first-team All-SEC pick, and Jalen Jones — who are both 6-7.
Jones averages 17.2 points and 7.0 rebounds, while House gets 15.9 points and 4.8 rebounds. Alex Caruso, 6-5, averages 7.9 points, 5.1 assists and 2.2 steals.
“They’re going to be very aggressive, but at the same time they’re smart with it,” LSU guard Keith Hornsby said. “They’re going to take the time to execute what they do and test you defensively. On the defensive end, they’re going to be tough. That’s just something you have to expect and welcome as a challenge.”
Their length certainly could be a challenge for a smaller LSU lineup that recently added guards Josh Gray and Jalyn Patterson to the mix with Hornsby. Yet Jones has the ability to go bigger if he chooses with Tim Quarterman, Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson.
“You’re talking about a team who can attack you from a lot of different ways,” Jones said. “What they do on the offensive end with the patience they show, in terms of getting the shots that they want and shooting about 47 percent from the field, they’re a tough team.”
The job of guarding Jalen Jones could fall to 6-9 forward Craig Victor, although it’s possible Victor may have to take on 6-10 freshman center Tyler Davis, who averages 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds.
“I look forward to guarding both of those guys; I take much pride in my defense,” said Victor, who had 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots in Saturday’s 76-74 win over Arkansas. “I can’t really control how they play on offense; the only thing I can control out there is what I do.”
With 6-10 forward Ben Simmons helping to defend down low, Hornsby said the Tigers can be successful against the bigger Aggies and come away with the SEC lead.
“As a team, we like to rise to challenges,” he said. “We’re really good at it. So if we look at the game that way, we’ll come out ready to play and firing on all cylinders.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.