In every measurable way so far this season, Kim Mulkey’s second LSU women’s basketball team has improved upon the strong credentials of her first.
Her first LSU team surprised everyone, even her, by going 26-6. These Tigers are 29-2.
Her first LSU team went 13-3 in the Southeastern Conference. These Tigers went 15-1, only losing at still unbeaten South Carolina.
Her first LSU team was one-and-done in the SEC tournament after a double bye as the No. 2 seed. These Tigers did fritter away a 17-point lead over Tennessee but also won a game to get to the semifinals.
Her first LSU team was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament. These Tigers …
Well, that chapter still has to be written, doesn’t it?
LSU finds itself Sunday in uncannily similar circumstances to where it was a year ago. The Tigers were a No. 3 NCAA regional seed, playing at home against a solid but mid-pack team from the Big Ten in No. 6 Ohio State. The Buckeyes controlled the game almost from the outset and won 79-64.
Again the Tigers are a No. 3 regional seed — underseeded, but facts are facts — and playing at home against a solid but mid-pack team from the Big Ten in No. 6 Michigan. Different styled teams, perhaps from the other side of the Big Ten’s most fabled rivalry. And Mulkey, lobbing a floral shop’s worth of bouquets at the Wolverines, also insists they are underseeded.
All that might be true. But one other fact remains: Getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, the Sweet 16, is the next goal in the rapid progression LSU has made under Mulkey.
Sunday is not the most important game of the 800 she has coached in her career. But it may be the most important one at LSU.
Not reaching the Sweet 16 would not set the program back. But it would be an unwelcomed delay on the road to what even Michigan’s coach said seems like certain ultimate glory.
It would be … disappointment. Even Mulkey said so.
“I think it's that next step,” Mulkey said Saturday. “You want to do better than the previous year. And I think in all aspects of what we have done in two years, we have done one more thing than we did the previous year. This would be that one more thing that last year's team didn't get to do.
“That doesn't mean if I come in here (Sunday) and we don't win the game that we're heading in the wrong direction. It would be a disappointment, but it's not — how do I say this? We're heading in the right direction. This would just be another stepping stone that we've stepped on.”
LSU has obvious advantages. It’s playing at home. And it has Angel Reese, the first-team All-American forward who had 34 points and 15 rebounds in the 73-50 win over Hawaii on Friday.
But Reese needs more help. LSU only had one other player in double-figures against Hawaii (Flau’Jae Johnson had 10 points). Meanwhile, Michigan did what Michigan does, spread the scoring around. The only team in the nation with three players averaging in double-figures, the Wolverines got 18 points each from Emily Kiser and Maddie Nolan and 17 from Leigha Brown to beat UNLV 71-59.
They also have something Mulkey covets for her team but can’t manufacture: experience. Michigan went to the Elite Eight last year and has five seniors on this season’s roster.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They (LSU) are going to get there. I don’t feel bad for them. They haven’t played together for a long period of time because most of them are young or just getting here. But they are still terrific players and have a great program.”
Reese, who played and scored modestly in three Big Ten games at Maryland against Michigan — 21 total points and 22 total rebounds — could strap the Tigers to her back and will them to the Sweet 16 with another 30-something, 20-something rebound game for the ages. And she can, as Kiser knows.
“I’m obviously not outjumping Angel Reese,” Kiser said. “We can laugh at that. Even pushing her back, she still might get a couple.”
The easier path for Reese and LSU is to get some serious help from her supporting cast. Alexis Morris only got six points Friday, none until the fourth quarter. She looked tentative and is always better when she lets the game flow through her.
And she knows it.
“I have to produce more on the offensive end,” Morris said.
A couple of companion double-digit scoring efforts around Reese and LSU is probably off to the Sweet 16. Michigan has good size and experience, but lost to its last seven against ranked opponents. LSU has speed, sheer talent and home court, but also more pressure to get to where it hasn’t been since 2014.