Headed in the right direction

Playing on the road and against its first NCAA Tournament-caliber team, LSU's 72-61 loss to Texas A&M on Saturday spoke volumes about the progress of Trent Johnson's young tenure.

The Aggies may not be the same caliber team they were with Acie Law IV and Billy Gillespie running the show in College Station, but they will likely be a factor in the Big 12 and are an admitted step up from the Jackson State’s and Grambling’s of the world.

The result is not surprising, but it is also not discouraging. The Tigers played tough in a tournament environment against their first opponent from a major conference. They were in the game late and trailed by only two points with under three minutes left but they continued to struggle from the foul line, something Johnson is sure to address. Only with several clutch free throws of their own did the Aggies put the lead safely into double digits.

LSU fans need only think back to last season’s edition of this game for encouragement. The Tigers were 7-7 against similar competition and were handled, 79-53. The Aggies sprinted to a 9-0 lead and built it to as much as 24-9 within the game’s first eight minutes. Even with future pro Anthony Randolph, LSU shot a mere 37 percent from the field and managed just eight free throws, making four.

No one expects the Tigers to be world-beaters this early in Johnson’s time here, at least I hope they don’t, but the signs of improvement are there. LSU was holding the opposition to 33 percent shooting going into this game and had outrebounded every team it had played before the Aggies. By comparison, the ’07 Tigers had been outrebounded by the likes of Southeastern, Chaminade and Northwestern State through nine games last season.

With that said though, many of LSU’s familiar problems from last season predictably arrived again.

LSU struggled to get to the foul line against the Aggies, taking just 12 shots to A&M’s 30. Just as their size advantage helped them win rebounds, the Aggies muscled their way to easy points while Chris Johnson and Tasmin Mitchell found themselves in foul trouble.

Johnson scored just two points Saturday, and it will be interesting to see if the Tigers can establish a consistent presence under the basket with a center who weighs in at about 200 pounds. With such short supply of size on the roster, especially with the loss of Garrett Green, it’s going to be crucial for Mitchell and Johnson to stay out of foul trouble, which is precisely what they could not do on Saturday.

Johnson’s predicament is troubling, but perhaps even worse than the lack of size is LSU’s lack of depth.

It seems pretty obvious to me that LSU’s season will correspond with how well Marcus Thornton is shooting and how much Mitchell can stay on the court.

Thornton is averaging 17.9 points per game and is certainly one of the SEC’s best shooters, if not the best. While Texas A&M had three starters score in double digits with the other two scoring eight and an additional 10 points off the bench, Thornton and Mitchell more than doubled the output of LSU’s other three starters. The Tigers’ bench managed a measly four points.

This says a lot for the abilities of both players, but heaven help the Tigers if one is in foul trouble or the other is injured. Garrett Temple and Bo Spencer both seem to be on the upswing with Johnson as head coach, but one of them is going to have to step up and put more points on the board. Give Spencer credit for playing through a lot of pain with his injured shoulder and he’s capable of giving LSU another scorer when healthy.

The most I can hope for is that both stay healthy and productive, and that Johnson doesn’t make it a habit to foul out with 2 points. It seemed that most of the game plan for 2007 was for Thornton to jack up shots from wherever he was when he got the ball and hope for the best.

This version of the Tigers actually runs an offense and looks like a team, but until Johnson brings in some recruits I’m afraid this year’s offense could revert to something equally as ugly if anything were to happen to Thornton or Mitchell.

The Tigers have another yawner coming up tonight against McNeese State. With any luck they can improve on last year’s 78-74 nailbiter win and fans can continue to see the marked improvement in the program from where it was a year ago.

Then comes another watermark game for Mr. Johnson and Co. Just like Texas A&M, Washington State isn’t quite on par with the squad that earned a No. 4 seed in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, but the Cougars are head and shoulders above everything LSU has faced to this point with the exception of the Aggies and they’ve already got some experience against top-notch programs like Pittsburgh and Gonzaga.

The game is Dec. 27, just after Christmas and just before the bowl games start to get really interesting. What better way is there to recover from deep-fried turkey and 24 hours of A Christmas Story on TBS than to watch Trent Johnson go up against one of his old buddies from the Pac-10?

Regardless of result, it’s a good enough Christmas present just to feel happy about the direction of LSU basketball.

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