Right before Christmas the SEC's opening game between LSU and Arkansas game was shaping up as a clash that would be pitting a team playing its best and another that certainly was not living up to its potential.
It's still the same scenario now that the first game of the SEC season is here, but the two teams have changed roles heading into Tuesday night's 8:05 p.m. game that will be nationally televised by ESPN.
Arkansas (8-3) is now the one playing its best basketball and showing some life with a two-game win streak while LSU (9-1) has not played as well while splitting it last two games heading into the contest.
The Razorbacks, who struggled with two straight home losses at one point, are indeed brimming with confidence after an 81-73 road win at Tulsa and Saturday's rip-roaring 96-61 pasting of North Texas.
"We're as focused as we've been the last two years," notes second-year Arkansas head coach Stan Heath. "You can see it in the huddle. When guys start having some success, it's easier to buy in. We've slowly grown into that. We're playing with confidence, aggressiveness and a little bit of a swagger right now."
Arkansas, which was reeling when Oklahoma State and unheralded Western Carolina beat it at home back on Dec. 22, is now excited about taking the court.
"I don't know if any coach is ever ready to start conference play," Heath said, "but we've played good basketball the last two games, so if there was ever a time to start, it's now."
LSU ripped off eight straight wins to open the season before falling 60-53 at Houston in the Tigers' only true road game followed by a 66-63 squeaker over Centenary last Saturday.
"Our team started out well and in two significant wins we had we played really well in Utah at home on television and we played well at UAB," LSU head coach John Brady said, "but in the last two games we have started relatively slow, got ourselves in a bind and got behind and we haven't played as well for some reason.
"Potentially we are okay," Brady continued, "but we haven't been able to score the ball recently as we (previously) have and certainly for us to be able to be the kind of team we would like ourselves to be we have to get some consistent perimeter shooting."
LSU boasts the league's leading scorer and board guy in 6-9, 245-pound senior post Jaime Lloreda, who is averaging a double-double by putting up 20.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
"Jaime Lloreda is one of the top two or three big men in the league," Heath said.
Lloreda is complimented inside by 6-8, 240-pound Brandon Bass (13.2, 8.6), who has put up four double-doubles of his own this season.
But while 6-2, 205-pound junior guard Antonio Hudson (11.3) is also in double figures, it's the perimeter game that has LSU struggling a little and Brady a little concern.
"People are concentrating on taking on Jaime and Brandon Bass so our perimeter has got to play more consistently and I think they can," Brady said. "We had some games where we have shot the ball pretty good and as far as taking care of the ball we are fine."
Heath acknowledges his team had trouble early on with its interior defense, but feels much better about that part of the Razorback attack these days.
"It's the difference between night and day," Heath said. "We've done a better job of taking away position early. That has really
helped our defense. It's still an area we can get better at. A major key to the game is Jaime Lloreda and Brandon Bass. There's nothing we can do to keep them from scoring at all, but we want to make them earn what they get."
Arkansas is quite the opposite with its perimeter a strong point and its inside play being an area of concern.
Brady is well aware of 6-4, 200-pound sophomore guard Jonathon "Pookie" Modica (19.6), the league's second-leading scorer, and Arkansas point guard Eric Ferguson (9.9).
"Modica is a tough player and he is going to play against anybody," Brady said. "He is a hard, tough guy that competes. I'm sure Ferguson is the same way. I have a lot of respect for Modica and you have to guard him and match his physical play with some of our own. I'm not saying in a dirty way or intentional way, I just mean in an appropriate way."
It was Ferguson that took exception to some Brady comments during last year's game in a brouhaha that ended up with Ferguson and Modica both getting technicals.
Brady bristled at the thought Monday that the raw tempers and action - which included a post-game talk between Heath and Brady - had anything to do with LSU.
"Our tempers didn't get raw at all," Brady said. "I don't know what you are talking about. None of our players had a technical foul called on them. None of our players were dismissed from the game. LSU players - we didn't have any emotion or show whatever you are referring, too.
"That is over a year ago and the players that were involved in that for us - or played the majority - are gone," Brady added. "The only player we had back that played any significant minutes - Antonio Hudson and Darryl Mitchell were off the bench - Jamie Lloreda started and the rest have graduated. It doesn't mean much to our team.
"I know they the majority of their team returning, but I have a different team now and that has nothing to do now with this team at all," Brady continued. "Things that happened a year ago don't have much effect on what is going on now."
Brady said he thinks that Heath might bring up the fact that LSU, which lost in Fayetteville last year, hammered Arkansas the last two times it played the Razorbacks.
"I know Stan Heath and he is a smart guy and I am sure he is doing everything he can to remind his team of how we played them the last two games of a year ago," Brady said. "I'm sure that any coach does what they need to do to motivate their team as we do ours. That is part of what happened and I am sure they are going to be ready."
He knows he will get some heat from Arkansas' fans, but states that is nothing new.
"I don't think any coach that walks on the floor at Bud Walton is a fan favorite - me or anyone else," Brady said. "We anticipate it being a difficult game, a competitive game, an exciting game and I think it will be good for TV."
Heath said he is just focused on making sure his team is ready to play.
"There was a traditional rivalry already in place," Heath said of the series. "Our games last year probably added to that. It's nothing personal between our players and their players. They have some good kids on their team, but when you get on the court, you want to win. I don't see last year as being a motivator. I see us as a different team and LSU is a different team."
One of the biggest differences for Arkansas is the addition of 6-7 freshman guard Ronnie Brewer (13.5, 6.2), who will try to push the ball upcourt quickly for Arkansas.
"We have to get back in transition defense - that is one of the things that we have got to do," Brady said. "We have to get back defensively and not give them any easy baskets if we can. That means we have to take care of the ball and don't turn it over and let turnovers lead to the other team shooting lay-ups and don't foul carelessly and put them on the free throw line."
If we make them execute in the halfcourt, it will help our chances," Brady added. "Up there if you let it get loose a little bit where they can turn you over and score the ball, the crowd can just stop your team from playing and take away your concentration. Then they can separate the score pretty easily."
Brady's noticed that Arkansas has made 11 3-pointers in each of its last two outings.
"If Arkansas shoots the ball from the perimeter, they are quite good, particular at home," Brady said. "Hopefully we can guard them beyond the arc a little bit, make them miss and give them one shot and hopefully get some easy baskets for us."
He's a little worried about how some of his new guys will react to Bud Walton Arena.
"I've got new guys," Brady said. "I am going to have four freshmen and sometimes five playing in that game. Not at one time hopefully because if I do that, I've got no chance. I am going to have some new guys who have never experienced anything like they are going to experience at Bud Walton, which I think is one of the toughest places to play in the league. We have had little success there since I have been here."
"It is going to be a good experience for our team and hopefully we are ready to play because if we are not," Brady added, "and we start as slow as we started against Houston and Centenary we won't have a chance after the first eight minutes to make a game of it as we have the last two. We have got to be ready to play from the beginning and if we are not they can break the score pretty quickly up there."
Heath said his team feels it is ready to defend its home court.
"We feel like we can pull off a big win at home," Heath said. "That is what we are looking to do."
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