The manner in which LSU breezed through many of its non-conference games had some already looking ahead to March Madness despite a strength of schedule that currently sits at No. 345 in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings.
However, the last couple of games where the Tigers fell at Utah by 30 points, and could not get over the hump and defeat an Alabama team when the Crimson Tide looked less than stellar made everyone remember that this is a rebuilding job that Johnson inherited.
LSU is currently ranked No. 136 in the NCAA’s most recent RPI update that was issued on Monday. Defeating the likes of Southeastern, McNeese State, Jackson State, Alcorn State and so on looks great in the win-loss column and is a great way for a team to build some confidence.
Now that league play has started, though, the grind has officially begun as the teams are stronger and more athletic every time the Tigers step onto the floor.
“The non-conference games were kind of easier than the conference games, but every SEC game you have to come to play because every team in the SEC can play,” said senior guard Marcus Thornton. “We’re going to have to come in every game focused and be ready to play.”
Adjusting to the new season as Johnson put it following his team’s loss to Utah requires the players to take a different approach. The games are more challenging from a physical standpoint and according to Thornton that is the biggest difference now that the Tigers are in conference play.
“It’s really a more physical play because SEC players are a lot stronger and they have more ability,” Thornton said. “We have to match their intensity especially on the road because they’re going to come out with intensity and ready to play.”
While Thornton feels that the physical aspect of playing league games is the toughest adjustment, South Carolina’s first-year head coach Darrin Horn has a different take.
“I think it’s mental more than anything especially when you look at teams like ours or LSU, who have a couple of key guys back and have been through the wars so to speak,” Horn said. “I just think the major difference is it’s such a higher level of intensity on every single play and that requires a mental adjustment and mental toughness even more than the physical.”
The players are not the only ones that must adapt to the mental challenges that playing in a major conference present. The coaches spend more time in the film room which in turn means more time that the players must put in off the court in their preparation for each contest.
“You have to have good preparation for SEC games,” said Thornton. “We go over scouting reports with coach (Donny) Guerinoni and other coaches and they do a good job of that. You have to carry out your assignments and get the job done.”
While the LSU staff had a couple of days to break down the Gamecocks it surely put some added emphasis on South Carolina’s 68-56 win over Auburn last Saturday.
South Carolina didn’t play particularly well in the first half and it showed with a slim 30-28 lead. The Gamecocks hit only 38.7 percent from the field and their two top scorers, Devan Downey and Zam Frederick, scored seven and 10 points, respectively.
The second half, however, was a different story as South Carolina shot 56 percent from the floor on 14-of-25 shooting and got 17 second half points from Frederick to pull away for the eight point victory.
“Zam stepped up big for us in a game where we were struggling offensively and did what you hope fifth-year seniors are going to do and play with a lot of poise and aggressiveness and show a lot of leadership,” Horn said.
South Carolina will put LSU’s unbeaten streak at home under Johnson to the test on Wednesday as the Tigers are 12-0 on the year.
The Gamecocks, on the other hand, have played only three road games this season and have a 2-1 mark so this will also give Horn a gauge on where his team is at this stage of the campaign.
It’s been a while since LSU fans have been excited about basketball and Thornton hopes that the SEC home opener will give the Tigers a spark that they have not gotten their last two times out.
“It’s always good to play at home especially with being on a two-game road trip and with both of the games being hard,” said Thornton. “We didn’t come out on top so it feels good playing at home and knowing that all of the students are back and will be out there supporting us.”