A big step up

LSU head coach Trent Johnson has a pretty good idea of what type of team he has through eight games. Thus far, the Tigers have been victorious every time they've stepped onto the court, but Johnson will know a lot more about his squad after Saturday when LSU travels to Houston to face its stiffest competition to date in Texas A&M.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how we respond when we’re going up against a good team with talented players who are mentally and physically tough,” Johnson said. “They’ll knock us back. That’s what is going to happen, and how are we going to respond to that?”


The Tigers have fared well in Johnson’s first year at the helm, but after getting their toughest test of the year on Wednesday against Nicholls State, they take a gigantic step up in competition with the Aggies.


Texas A&M returns three starters from last year’s squad that came within three points of making it to the Sweet 16, falling to UCLA, 51-49, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.


The Aggies (9-1) lone defeat this season was at the hands of Tulsa, 67-56, but Mark Turgeon’s club has defeated Arizona by a point and went on the road to beat Alabama by eight in overtime.


Despite a strength of schedule that is ranked No. 268 by one publication, Johnson fully understands that this A&M club has all of the makings to make a strong run in the Big 12 Conference and beyond.


“I don’t know who is voting, but they’re 9-1, and they beat an Arizona team that I’m very familiar with and that has four special players,” said Johnson. “Then, they went on the road and beat Alabama, who is for the most part picked to win the SEC West. Alabama is probably as talented as anybody in our league just from what I’ve seen off tape”


The floor general for the Aggies is one of the top point guards in the Big 12 in Donald Sloan. The 6-3, 205-pound junior has dished out 40 assists, while turning the ball over only 15 times on the year, and he’s the second leading scorer on the team at 12.5 points an outing.


Sloan often looks for 6-7, 200-pound swingman Josh Carter, who leads the team with 14.5 points a game. Carter can knock it down from outside and if he’s not on, which isn’t often, then the Aggies will turn to their two big men in 6-9, 240-pound forward Bryan Davis and 6-10, 235-pound center Chinemelu Elonu.


“Josh Carter is a pro. He shoots it. He really stretches you, and whoever they put in the post is impressive,” Johnson said. “He will be big and strong where you won’t be able to get angles.”


Davis averages 10.7 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, while Elonu chips in 8.1 and 6.3, respectively. The two also combine for three blocked shots a game and their ability to bang inside is something that the Tigers have not encountered on the young season, but it’s something that Johnson is a little familiar with.


“This is a different level in terms of being physical,” Johnson said. “They like to run their stuff, and they’re big. They pound it into the post, and they try to wear you down. I’m really familiar with that style of play because that’s the way I played in the past at Stanford.”


LSU’s frontcourt of Chris Johnson (6-11, 205) and Tasmin Mitchell (6-7, 230) has played well defensively for the Tigers and both can also score.


Mitchell (12.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG) has shown some improvement with playing with his back to the goal, but he hasn’t faced anyone quite as big this season.


Johnson (9.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.9 BPG) may be a little light, but he’s a leaper that is tough to score on if you don’t put a big body on him and he can extend the floor with his outside shot.


LSU entered the week as the nation’s leader in field goal defense and rebounding margin, and heading into Saturday opponents are shooting a mere 33.4 percent from the field and the Tigers average 15.9 more boards a game than the opposition.


Senior swingman Garrett Temple (6-6, 195) has been one of LSU’s best defenders throughout his four-year career and he will be on Carter much of the night.


Johnson said that he doesn’t worry a lot about individual matchups for his guys, but he hopes that some of his team’s quickness can create some problems for the Aggies.


“I’m not a guy that gets caught up in the individual matchups because, yea, Garrett’s going to cover a guy that is a really good player but we have to play really good team defense,” he said.


“I just think that our team speed up front has to someway, somehow at the front line, we have to turn that into hopefully an advantage because their strength and ability to pound the ball in the post is a concern.”


Marcus Thornton leads LSU in scoring at 17.3 points a game and he’s hitting 50.5 percent from the field on the year. The 6-4, 205-pound senior guard scored 12 points against A&M last year and he’s looking forward to getting a chance to avenge the 79-53 loss from a year ago.


“I thought Marcus Thornton’s comments immediately after the (Nicholls State) game were sincere and thoughtful that he said he’s been looking forward to this game because last year, that was his first experience in big-time college basketball,” said Johnson.


With Saturday’s matchup being part of a doubleheader that will feature Texas and Michigan State in game one, the Tigers will be playing outside of the friendly confines of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for the first time this year.


The Houston Toyota Center should give the Aggies a little more of a home-court advantage, but Johnson isn’t worried about that. Instead, he’s more worried about the guys that will be sporting the maroon and white jerseys with Texas A&M across their chest.


“The rim is 10 feet,” Johnson said. “Everybody talks about a neutral (court) and some people say it will be a road game…I don’t really care where, when who you play. It doesn’t matter. Good teams and good players play. If you’re concentrating and you’re mentally tough, the five players on the floor are the guys that are going to beat you.”

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