LSU has tough tests ahead
There was a need to beef up the non-conference schedule this season and that happened, coincidentally with a team more capable of handling it -- so far with decent results, although the two toughest tests at home remain.
LSU notched road wins against Georgia Tech (neutral-site), Houston and Rutgers and played a solid game against once-beaten Northwestern at a tournament in Charleston. As promising as that is for the Tigers, they'll dip their toes into the power-level conference pool two more times before SEC play when Marquette (Dec. 19) and Virginia (Jan. 2) visit Baton Rouge.
Exactly how the upgraded slate will benefit the Tigers won't take long to decipher. Four of their first seven SEC games are against ranked foes, three on the road and all before the calendar turns to February.
That doesn't bode well considering LSU began the SEC season 2-5 a year ago and went 13 games before winning a league game the year before.
What should help the Tigers as they shift into league play is better talent, more depth and a defensive tenacity that has blossomed in the first third of the season.
Two players from a three-man recruiting class are starting -- point guard Anthony Hickey and forward Johnny O'Bryant -- and the third, John Isaac has played a key role in the upgraded defensive toughness. Those three, along with junior transfer Justin Hamilton, a 7-foot center, infused the kind of skills that LSU lacked the last few years.
It's the freshmen who have fourth-year coach Trent Johnson most encouraged that LSU is on the right track to reverse a two-year trend of last-place finishes in the SEC.
"They're about where I thought they would be in this point in time," Johnson said. "When I say that, all three of them are competing at a very high level. They're not afraid, and they're not tentative to make plays. They continue to be receptive to coaching. Are we as consistent as we'd like? No, but we're going to get there. They're on par."
Hamilton has also been a pleasant surprise, averaging 11.2 points and 6 rebounds a contest and is shooting 80.6% from the free-throw line.
The upgraded depth will be put to a test with recent health problems: Isaac tweaked a knee in practice and sophomore Andre Stringer (team-high 12.1 ppg and a 42.5% 3-pont shooter) fainted before a workout and will be held out for precautionary reasons until additional tests are completed.
Depending on how long those two are on the shelf and how the Tigers adjust, there is enough cause for optimism from the first portion of the season to think LSU be a contender for postseason play if it can hold its own against the upper echelon of the top-heavy SEC.
LSU's defense thrived on forcing turnovers early in the season, ranking second in the SEC in steals (9 per game) and turnover margin (plus-4.3) through Dec. 12.
The Tigers had outrebounded foes six times in nine games and won five of those games. Last season LSU lost the battle on the boards 18 times and was 2-16 in those games.
In the last six games, LSU has limited opponents to 56.5 points a game, with five foes failing to crack 60.
PLAYER TO WATCH: F Storm Warren -- One of the last two remaining members of the Tigers 2009 SEC Championship team, Warren's role has shifted from being a starter most of the last two seasons to coming off the bench, and the 6-foot-8 athletic senior has embraced it well. Warren is producing 8.2 points and 4.9 rebounds a game, and consistently brings a jolt of energy when he enters a game -- especially on defense, where he has recorded 13 steals and 7 blocked shots. With the rigors of SEC play on the horizon, Warren's impact and value should become even more meaningful as Hamilton and O'Bryant adjust to what they need to adjust to the physicality.
KEY CONFERENCE GAME: Jan. 11 at Alabama -- The Tigers don't have to wait long to get their barometer check. How LSU plays at Alabama could set the tone for the two-month conference grind. Go to Tuscaloosa and play well and/or win, and the Tigers should be confident moving forward, which could be vital in that early grind that includes additional road trips to Florida and Mississippi State and a home game vs. Kentucky. Struggle on the road and start to have doubts, and a team built around sophomores and freshmen could start to unravel. With more athleticism and the penchant for playing sticky defense, the Tigers have the tools to compete with most teams in the league -- especially if they can get things started on the right foot.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's good. I think it's huge. I think it's important. All three words because going into a game like this you know you have a size advantage, so it's on you as a team to execute that. I thought we were very efficient." -- coach Trent Johnson after LSU notched a win against Boise State in the first test without Andre Stringer and John Isaac.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010-11 CONFERENCE RECORD: 3-13, 12th place
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: Johnson has settled on an eight-man rotation, although that could change if Stringer or Isaac is out for an extended period. But there's depth to fill the gaps, and that's something Johnson hasn't had the last two seasons. Stringer (18 assists, 16 steals) Hickey (11.2 ppg, 4.2 assists, 2 steals per game), Turner (9.9 ppg, 17-49 3-pt. FG) and Hamilton are mainstays in the starting lineup, with either O'Bryant (9.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) or Warren filling the other frontcourt spot. If Stringer's ailment keeps him out of action, Isaac and junior Eddie Ludwig are the leading candidates to jump in and round out the first five.
Hickey is tied for third in the league with 2 steals per game and tied for fifth with 4.2 assists a contest.
Five different players have led the Tigers in scoring, although none have hit double figures in every game. Stringer, Hickey and Hamilton have each done so six times apiece. Hickey and Stringer have recorded a 20-point game each.
Turner made at least two 3-pointers in each of the first seven games, but has missed 6-of-7 in the last two outings.
LSU has yet to record a double-double this season, largely because none of the big men has snatched 10 or more rebounds in a game.