I think I may finally have this LSU basketball team figured out.
The Tigers need to turn the ball over to gain possession.
They need their best player to have what he called his worst game (though he still finished with a double-double).
And they need to play a cold-fish first half devoid of intensity to pull out a critical victory that was heart-pounding enough to put LSU fans on the critical-care list.
The Tigers’ dramatic 76-74 win over Arkansas on Saturday may not have been an artistic success. It may well have been a game LSU should have lost.
But artistry is in the eye of the beholder. If you want a team that makes you feel a roiling gumbo of emotions every game — frustration, wonder, disgust, euphoria, just to pick a few — this is your team.
The chase for the Southeastern Conference championship is only a couple of weeks old, but Saturday night’s contest was definitely a crucial one.
Kentucky has looked mighty mortal, blowing a second-half lead Saturday at Auburn. Texas A&M has been the class of the conference — and is LSU’s next opponent on the road come Tuesday night.
Arkansas was supposed to be swimming in the SEC’s shallow end this season, but the Razorbacks matched LSU’s 3-1 conference record entering the ring in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The winner would go to solo second place in the SEC behind the Aggies.
Considering the degree of difficulty facing the Tigers this week — at A&M and at Alabama — this game took on an extra air of importance.
Naturally, the Tigers started like they didn’t see it that way.
LSU looked like it left a “Do Not Disturb” sign on its bench in the first half. The Tigers might have had more accuracy blindfolded at the free-throw line than they did in the first 20 minutes, bricking their way to a 9-of-18 effort as Arkansas stayed at arm’s length with a 40-36 halftime lead. With just under eight minutes to go, the Tigers were 11-of-24 at the line, a big reason they trailed Arkansas 61-58.
The front man for LSU’s crazy quilt play was its front man, Simmons. He started slowly on offense, thudding a would-be slam dunk against the rim, missing free throws, turning the ball over.
“Tonight was pretty rough for me personally,” Simmons said. “I’m just happy my team won. I struggled a little bit getting to the rim and getting calls. It was one of those games.”
But it was also one of those games for Simmons as he took over in the closing minutes. He atoned for a turnover with a drive for a three-point play, coming up with a crucial follow basket off an Antonio Blakeney missed free throw and swiping the ball from Anthlon Bell on the inbound (though the steal officially went to Blakeney) after a reversed call on an out-of-bounds play went against him.
Simmons finished with an unconventional double-double: 16 points, 18 rebounds. But it was LSU’s other double-double man who was the star.
Craig Victor has been a huge force for good for LSU since he became eligible after fall-semester finals. He may not be the enforcer Jordan Mickey was last season en route to leading the NCAA in blocked shots, but Victor definitely has added some toughness, some sinew, and intensity that LSU’s post play was lacking.
To the Victor went the spoils of this win. With the clock winding down on a 74-74 tie after the Simmons/Blakeney steal, Victor muscled the Razorbacks’ Moses Kingsley out of the way and positioned himself to grab Blakeney’s missed 3-pointer and lay the ball over the rim for what proved to be the winning basket with 4.2 seconds left.
It was 16 points, 12 rebounds for Victor, who was less than 100 percent thrilled with how the game played out.
“We made that game harder than it had to be,” he said.
Welcome to LSU hoops, Mr. Victor, where up is down, in is out, and a miss can be just as good as a make.
Now what to make of this LSU team?
After going a sluggish 7-5 in preconference play, the Tigers were in fear of starting 0-3 in the SEC against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida. They started 2-1 with only a loss at Florida before coming home to post a pair of hard-fought victories against Ole Miss and Arkansas.
Still, LSU appears to have much to prove entering Tuesday’s showdown in College Station. The Tigers’ fortunes still seem to be riding on the same knife edge, especially with the next two games on the road.
It doesn’t look like a recipe for success — which may just mean LSU has them right where they want them.