The road starts in Auburn tonight.
Warm-up games and non-conference tests aside (Shavon Coleman even referred recently to the past 11 games as the "preseason"), it's time for LSU to tackle the Southeastern Conference.
Eighteen physical contests lie ahead, up from the usual 16 of recent vintage, and each will put LSU (9-2) to the test in a variety of different ways.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the team's opener on the Plains tonight will be facing a front line on a roll without the full range of services from sophomore power forward Johnny O'Bryant.
When LSU and Auburn (6-7) tip inside Auburn Arena (8 p.m., CSS/CST), the visiting Tigers may feature O'Bryant in spurts, but he's almost certainly not ready for big minutes yet.
O'Bryant has been dealing with a high ankle sprain, suffered in a loss to Marquette on Dec. 22, and he sat out the Houston Baptist game Dec. 28 before returning to play just five minutes in LSU's win over Bethune-Cookman on Jan. 5.
"Well, you're never 100 percent," O'Bryant told TSD on Monday. "But I definitely think I'll be good enough to play (Wednesday) and give my team some minutes. Whether it's 40 minutes or 15 minutes, I'm just going to try to give my team something."
Johnny Jones' Bayou Bengals will indeed take what they can get in the conference open against Auburn big men Allen Payne and Rob Chubb, a duo that's been a handful of late. In the War Eagles last two games, against Florida State and ranked Illinois, Payne has posted averages of 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds while the 6-10, 250-pound Chubb has averaged 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Much of the onus will fall on starting center Andrew Del Piero and a shuffling deck of Shavon Coleman, Jalen Courtney and Eddie Ludwig to slow down the post players for Auburn and third-year coach Tony Barbee, a John Calipari disciple.
Of course Auburn is dealing with injury issues of its own, playing without guards Chris Denson and Jordan Price, both dealing with stress fractures. Denson was putting in 15.2 points per game, second on the team, while Price was averaging 7.7 points per game.
In the same way LSU will have to get creative to defend the post, Auburn will have to find ways to stay in front of LSU's guards with dwindling numbers on the wings. Early reports from the Plains tab freshman Brian Greene Jr. as the next guard up to fill out the rotation in the absence of Denson and Price.
The War Eagles' best and most productive player is senior guard Frankie Sullivan. The Uniontown, Ala., native is second in the SEC in scoring to date (17.8 ppg) and has notched eight 20 point games already this season.
LSU will have to know where No. 23 is at all times, but the road Tigers do at least have the horses on the perimeter to keep tabs on Sullivan. Look for Charles Carmouche or Andre Stringer to get the first crack at Sullivan, with Anthony Hickey coming off the bench another option to man up Aubie's primary threat.
This Auburn team came out the gates slowly in 2012-13, losing to Murray State, Dayton and Boston College, but Barbee's bunch is playing with confidence heading into tonight's tilt. The War Eagles have won four of six, including a 78-72 win over Florida State in their last contest. Before that Auburn just barely came up short against No. 12 Illinois, falling 81-79 in a game played in Chicago's United Center.
After this game for LSU, the team will return home to play its SEC home opener against Florida Saturday at 3 p.m. (ESPNU) inside the PMAC.
Probable Starting Lineups
G Corban Collins (Fr., 6-3, 192) – 4.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 52.6% 3s
G Andre Stringer (Jr., 5-10, 178) – 11.7 ppg, 2.3 apg, 42.2% 3s
G Charles Carmouche (Sr., 6-4, 187) – 9.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.7 apg
F Shavon Coleman (Jr., 6-5, 195) – 14.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 50.4% FGs
C Andrew Del Piero (Sr., 7-3, 254) – 5.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg
Key Rotational Players: G Anthony Hickey (5-11, 182, averages 10.7 ppg and 4.0 apg) and F Johnny O'Bryant (6-9, 258, averages 12.0 ppg and 7.6 rpg), if healthy
G Josh Wallace (Sr., 5-10, 170) – 3.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.2 apg
G Frankie Sullivan (Sr., 6-1, 206) – 17.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.4 apg
G Shaquille Johnson (Fr., 6-5, 210) – 4.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.3 apg
F Allen Payne (Jr., 6-6, 215) – 7.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.5 spg
C Rob Chubb (Sr., 6-10, 250) – 9.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg
Key Rotational Players: F Noel Johnson (6-6, 205, averages 6.5 ppg and 2.9 rpg) and G Brian Greene Jr. (6-3, 205, averages 1.5 ppg and 1.4 apg)
PREVIEW: LSU vs. Auburn
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