Renewed faith on the road

After getting back on track with a win over Arkansas, LSU heads to Vandy looking to build momentum.

Avoiding bulletin-board material or fueling an opponent's fire is standard operating procedure that can be found on page one of any coach's manual.

So hearing LSU coach Trent Johnson speak favorably about Vanderbilt this week was more status quo than a major surprise.

But there's a little more about the Commodores to Johnson, whose Tigers (13-9, 3-5 SEC) take on Vandy (16-7, 5-3) at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

"I love teams like Vanderbilt," Johnson said this week before launching a wave of praise about the components of a team that was chosen in the pre-season to finish second in the SEC.

Basketball man-crush aside, Johnson and LSU have their hands full at Memorial Gymnasium in their first road game of February.

But this seems to be a different group of Tigers after a 71-65 triumph against Arkansas last Saturday. That victory snapped a three-game losing streak and allowed LSU to get a new month started on the right foot.

It's a little early to say the Tigers have gained a major dose of momentum, but they certainly seem to be in a better frame of mind.

Ralston Turner

"Does this challenge for us come at the right time? I think so," Johnson said. "It's a good time for us to go back out on the road."

Added guard Ralston Turner, whose 16-point day vs. the Razorbacks was his best in an SEC game this season. "When you win, that puts everybody in a better mood. So if we want to stay in this mood we better keep winning."

To accomplish that, LSU will have to figure out how to slow down arguably the SEC's most complete and versatile team.

Vanderbilt's veteran backcourt of John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley is on par with Florida's talented trio but with more experience.

John Jenkins

Jenkins is the league's top scorer overall with 19.7 points a game, and Taylor tops the SEC in league games only with 18.5 a contest. Tinsley – who Johnson tried to recruit to Stanford – has recorded 104 assists.

Each of the Vandy guard trio is shooting 48% or better from 3-point range.

"They've got shooters all around the perimeter, so we have to be alert on defense and make sure we make sure we challenge every shot," LSU point guard Anthony Hickey said.

Not that the Tigers' frontcourt crew can breathe easy.

Festus Ezeli

Forward Lance Goulborne is Vandy's top rebounder with 7.1 caroms a game and he ranks third in scoring with 9.6 points a contest. Center Festus Ezeli is at 9.2 points a game and is the Commodores' all-time leader in blocked shots with 179. Ezeli has been hampered by a knee injury and could be limited, which would thrust senior Steve Tchiengang into a more prominent role.

Tchiengang, a one-time LSU recruiting target, started early in the season when Ezeli was serving a suspension. Like the veteran guards and Ezeli, Tchiengang has been around for six consecutive Vanderbilt victories against LSU – the Tigers' longest drought against the Commodores since an 11-game skid from 1964-69.

"They've got a great core group of veteran guys back who have played together a lot and accomplished a lot," LSU swing man Eddie Ludwig said. "This is going to be a really big challenge for us."

Not an insurmountable one, though.

As good as Ezeli and Goulbourne have been inside, the Tigers' tandem of Justin Hamilton and Johnny O'Bryant – with Storm Warren off the bench – matches up well inside. Who stays out of foul trouble for both teams will play a key role.

The backcourt matchup isn't as favorable for the Tigers, but Hickey has held his own against veteran point guards throughout SEC play and should be motivated playing 135 miles from his hometown.

Turner and Andre Stringer have both struggled to find a shooting rhythm from the perimeter. If either can to give LSU a shot to keep pace with whatever Jenkins and Taylor supply against a Tigers' defense that stymied Arkansas into a 3-for-13 shooting day from outside the 3-point arc.

Regardless of where the advantages and disadvantages might be, Vandy coach Kevin Stallings is keenly aware of how much different this LSU team is than the one his team routed 90-69 in the regular season last year. The Commodores ended the Tigers' season at the SEC Tournament with a 62-50 win.

"They got an infusion of young very, very good talent and Hamilton being there is a very big plus too," Stallings said.

Kevin Stallings

"They just look to be so improved over a year ago. They're athletic, they're quicker, they're bigger, stronger, faster. They just look to me that they've improved in every way.

"They're a good team and a fun team to watch play because they've gotten a lot better."

Ludwig could play a wildcard role if he can replicate the way he played against the Hogs.

The 6-foot-8 junior came off the bench and sparked LSU with 12 points and poses a matchup dilemma as a big guard and an extra rebounder.

"We understand what we have to do if we're going to make a late-season push here," Ludwig said. "We brought it back to the basics and that's going to be the foundation we're building the second half of the SEC season on."

As always, playing at Memorial Coliseum present a unique challenge to visiting team with the benches on the baselines instead of along the sideline.

That means in the first half Johnson will have 47 feet between his bench and team, making communication tricky.

He downplayed the adjustment, quipping that his players have a built-in excuse to not listen to him with the logistics in Nashville.

"There's only so much you can give the kids, so much information," he said.

"Officials have been pretty lenient in letting you go to the corner and walk down."

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