Playing for first in the West

LSU finally has some swagger back after a rough start to 2009. The Tigers (14-3, 2-1) have bounced back from consecutive losses to Utah and Alabama in a big way in the past seven days. The team blew past South Carolina in its SEC home opener, 85-68, one week ago. The Tigers followed that up with an 83-51 destruction of Ole Miss on Saturday.

Next up is tonight’s big matchup against Mississippi State at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.


“Obviously we are getting better and playing better,” said LSU coach Trent Johnson. “But at this time of the year – middle of January to the end – it becomes match-ups, adjustments and good players making plays with confidence. The teams that are able to deal with the external stuff, what everybody is writing and saying, and concentrate on dealing with their emotions, staying grounded and knowing that they have to A, B and C – those kinds of things are important.”


Tonight’s game against Mississippi State (13-5, 3-0) is for the lead in the SEC West, as hard as that is to believe even though the Tigers will only be a quarter of the way through their conference schedule. The Tigers suffered through their worst campaign of the decade last season, but Johnson will lead his new team onto the court at the PMAC for the program’s most meaningful game since John Brady’s firing.


“I don’t know if we need any motivation. I am not one of these guys who gets caught up in false motivation and all of that nonsense,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is this is a good basketball team, and this is another league game. As I have said all year long and these guys know that, if we are not at our best and competing at a fever pitch, we are going to struggle.”


Perhaps the biggest contributor to the Tigers’ “fever pitch” has been the size and experience of the starting roster. Junior forward Tasmin Mitchell was able to get inside effectively against the Gamecocks and Rebels – both with undersized rosters – for scoring totals of 30 and 17, respectively.


Mississippi State has used a fast-paced, four guard approach this season with much success. After losing five of eight games over the last month of 2008, the Bulldogs have come into 2009 firing on all cylinders with a five-game win streak and a 3-0 conference mark.


Their shooting skills, currently fourth in the conference in field goal percentage at 46.7 percent, is helping them to an average of 80.6 points per game during the win streak.


“Their skill set is unlike anything we have faced all year long. They have five or six perimeter players, and I do say five or six that are very skilled and can get their own shot,” Johnson said. “The thing that impresses me the most is whether they make it or miss it, they push the ball up and shoot it deep.


“Our transition defense, our ability to cover the three-point line is going to be huge come Wednesday … We have not faced and Tasmin has not guarded a guy like [Ravern] Johnson all year long who is a 6-7 long, lean, athletic, skilled guard.”


Along with Johnson, who is second on the team in scoring with 12.1 points a game, the Bulldogs also have one of the league’s top big men in 6-9, 210-pound Jarvis Varnado.


Varnado leads the Bulldogs with 12.6 points a game and he’s second in the SEC at rebounding with 9.6 boards a contest to go with his conference leading 5.17 blocks an outing.


Mississippi State has two other starters that average double-digit scoring in a pair of 6-2, 170-pound guards in Barry Stewart and Dee Bost, with 10.9 and 10.3 points, respectively.


LSU’s success in Johnson’s first year just might lead to a home court advantage it hasn’t enjoyed in some time. Last week’s game against South Carolina drew a paid crowd of 11,393.


With a 16-game home win streak and the division lead on the line, and with a nationally-televised game against Xavier looming on the schedule, its possible the Tigers could find themselves playing in front of a raucous home crowd.


“I was really surprised and happy about the student section last game,” said senior guard Garrett Temple. “They came out and filled all their seats.


“Maybe we should have let them fill the seats that the paid customers didn’t use,” Temple said with a laugh. “The student section did a great job coming out. Now we just want the public to come out and support us because hopefully we are on to something special.”

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