LSU should take confidence from loss

The Tigers lost their 7-game winning streak Monday night, but went toe-to-toe with the 21st-ranked Cavaliers in the last tuneup before SEC play.

Like most of his coaching brethren, LSU basketball coach Trent Johnson takes losing about as well as you and I do the arrival of the tax season or a trip to the dentist.

It's no fun and he doesn't bother to try and hide it.

So reading his quotes after the Tigers tumbled to Virginia 57-52 Monday night, it's no surprise that Johnson wasn't handling his team's first loss in over a month all that well.

He can feel like that. He gets paid to think that way.

You know what, though? In a tough and gritty loss, LSU showed me a lot more than it has at any point this season, with the victory against Marquette a close second.

When March rolls around, losing to the 21st-ranked Cavaliers might loom as a game that got away.

If the Tigers keep playing at a similar level, though, and build from the close-call punch in the gut, losing to Virginia could simply be part of a resume that at least has them in the discussion for an NCAA berth.

Is LSU at that point now? Nah, not even close. But this team is a lot tougher mentally and more talented physically than the last two seasons and should have a nice dose of confidence going into the SEC season.

I say that on a lot of levels.

Topping that list is that the Tigers are much more tested by their non-conference schedule this season than any time since Johnson took over.

It's not quite at the same level, but it reminds on a smaller-scale version of the 2006 Final Four team that went through a non-SEC grinder that includes games against at West Virginia, Ohio State and Connecticut and a neutral-site battle with Cincinnati.

I've always contended that there's no way that team achieves what it did without running that gauntlet.

Why that matters this season is because the non-league slate should leave LSU with at least a respectable RPI before SEC play starts. More importantly, the Tigers have learned how they can and need to play to be successful.

Namely, this LSU team knows how to lock down on defense and it can rebound the ball. The Tigers are glaringly challenged on offense when they're forced to bomb away from 3-point range, but getting Andre Stringer back and into game shape will certainly help.

Thing is, LSU doesn't have to lean completely on the outside attack like it was forced to at times against SEC foes last season.

Justin Hamilton has give the Tigers a badly needed inside presence.

Center Justin Hamilton and forward Johnny O'Bryant have fortified the Tigers' inside game a bunch, and that's allowed seniors Storm Warren and Malcolm White to slide into roles where they can use their athleticism instead of trying to bang around with opponents who hover above them by 4-5 inches.

Without question, at some point, LSU will have to show some improvement on the offensive end. Unlike football, not every game can be turned over to the defense with the hope and expectation of that being enough.

In some ways, it should help to get into the SEC portion of the schedule because most of the teams the Tigers tangle with twice a week from January through early March are more athletic than anybody they've seen so far. And usually with more athleticism comes more up-tempo, free-lance basketball, which in turn often generates more easy shots in transition or on the secondary break.

All of that ties into why LSU should have some confidence as the SEC campaign arrives.

The league seems to be stronger at the top than it has been the last few years with five legitimate NCAA Tournament teams: Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Mississippi State. The Wildcats, Gators and Bulldogs are ranked and the Commodores and Crimson Tide have been this season.

Those teams make up seven of the Tigers' 16-game league slate. So an upset or two against that group – which doesn't seem unfathomable when you consider how LSU has stacked up against power-conference opponents so far this season – is a must.

And then the other nine games, five of which are at home, those are where the Tigers can carve out what kind of season they'll have.

Winning on the road would be huge at Ole Miss, Arkansas and Auburn. Holding serve vs. those three at home is vital. Handling teams that haven't accomplished a lot less than LSU this season – South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia – is certainly a realistic goal.

If it shakes out that the Tigers wind up in the middle of the pack in the SEC with 8 or 9 league victories, would that be enough to warrant an NCAA bid? Is January too early to break out an on-the-bubble reference?

So far, LSU has built the foundation for a solid season on wins against Georgia Tech, Rutgers and Marquette and close-call losses to Northwestern and Virginia. A lot hinges on what kind of seasons those five teams have moving forward.

More than anything else, though, where the Tigers go from here depends on how they handle the transition from a tough loss to Virginia – perhaps their toughest this season considering just how big a win it could've been – with the SEC season about to launch.

Tiger Blitz Top Stories