Another test

Another week, another big test for the LSU basketball team. One week after a hard fought loss to Texas A&M, the Tigers (9-1) welcome the Washington State Cougars (8-3) to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Saturday.

The Cougars present the biggest challenge of the year, as their only losses have come to No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 7 Gonzaga, and No. 21 Baylor.

Through 11 games the Cougars have displayed impressive defense by allowing just 48 points per game, the lowest average in the nation. LSU coach Trent Johnson quoted UCLA coach Ben Howland as saying that playing Washington State was like “a root canal … this will be a possession by possession game.”

Washington State without question is probably one of the best defensive teams in the country. They have been for the last three or four years,” Johnson said.

Spending plenty of time in the Pac-10 while at Stanford, Johnson knows all too well of what type of team head coach Tony Bennett will bring down to Baton Rouge.

“I’m very familiar with them,” Johnson said. “There is only one team that has scored over 58 points against them and that was Gonzaga. Their losses are to Gonzaga, at that time the No. 5 team in the country, Baylor is ranked and Pittsburgh. This is a basketball team that has been battle tested. They have a returning nucleus of good basketball players. They have three starters on their team with a lot of NCAA tournament experience.”

Johnson no doubt remembers Wazzu’s “tournament experience.” Last season, he guided Stanford past the Cougs in the Pac-10 tournament semifinal on the way to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Washington State earned a No. 4 seed on the opposite side of the bracket, where it eventually lost to North Carolina.

As if the best scoring defense in the country wasn’t enough, Washington State is also ranked No. 1 in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to a lowly 33.5 percent from the field. LSU is No. 5 in this category, albeit against less impressive competition.

“A six-point or a 10-point lead for a team like this is like 20,” Johnson said. “That’s what we as a staff and I as the head coach have to get through to these guys so they get a good understanding. This is going to be a very, very physical game. They are strong. They are extremely well-coached and it’s going to be interesting.”

The Tigers’ most recent performance, a 62-59 win against McNeese State, likely doesn’t inspire much confidence against such a proven team. LSU shot 28.6 percent and turned the ball over nine times on the way to a 28-21 halftime deficit. The Tigers also shot just 55 percent from the free throw line.

A similar performance won’t get it done against one of the Pac-10’s top programs. The Cougars begin conference play in one week and will likely be looking for the extra bit of momentum.

“When you look at (Monday), when we were up 11 and we had three, maybe four turnovers, ill-advised careless turnovers,” Johnson said. “If you have those to start a game like Washington State, you are looking at a 10-point deficit and it’s going to take some real discipline to get it back to where that thing is workable. We’ve got to take care of it. This is probably the best defensive team we’ve seen to this point and may see all year.”

Testing the Washington State defense will be the outside shooting of LSU senior guard Marcus Thornton, who leads the Tigers in scoring at 17.6 points a game and is shooting 48.9 percent from the field.

LSU has two other players averaging in double figures in scoring with Tasmin Mitchell at 13 and Bo Spencer at 11.2 points a game, respectively.

Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. Saturday from the PMAC. The game will be broadcast on ESPN 2.

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