Big game hype

Big-time non-conference basketball is coming to the PMAC for the first time in more than two years. In the midst of a blistering three-game streak in which they've averaged 83 points a game, the LSU Tigers (15-3, 3-1) will host the No. 15 Xavier Musketeers (16-2, 5-0) tonight at 7 o'clock.

Xavier comes into the game on a streak of its own, having won its last seven games.

The last time the Tigers hosted a ranked team outside of the SEC in a game of this magnitude was January of 2006 against No. 18 Connecticut.

“Xavier is pretty good. Obviously, there is a lot of rich tradition with their basketball program and they have had a nucleus of players over the years. A lot of them have been good players that have gone into the NBA. This is a basketball team that is very skilled at any time one of any four guys can come out and transition, which causes some problems for us on a transition defense,” said LSU coach Trent Johnson.

“Against a team like this you have to be at your best and cut hard,” Added Johnson. “It will be a matter of will and mental toughness and who has ability to execute and get worn down. This is a team that is coming in here where we have to beat them, they will not beat themselves.”

The Musketeers are LSU’s strongest opponent of 2009 in more than just name. Xavier coach Sean Miller has led his team to the Elite Eight twice in the past five years, and the Musketeers are the Tigers’ first ranked opponent of the season.

“We have done all that we could have done with the exception of Alabama up until this point,” said senior guard Garrett Temple. “We have another big test on our hands with Xavier and it will challenge and show us where we are at this point in the season.”

Temple will be pleasantly surprised if the Tigers play half as well as they have over the past three games. Temple, junior forward Tasmin Mitchell, sophomore point guard Bo Spencer and senior guard Marcus Thornton have combined to post convincing thumpings of South Carolina, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Over that span Mitchell has posted a season best combination of 30 points and 14 rebounds against South Carolina. Temple and Spencer have totaled 28 and 31 points, respectively, and Thornton exploded for 17 points in less than four minutes against Mississippi State to finish with 31 points.

Needless to say, the Tigers are playing well.

“I think it’s the perfect time for this game,” Temple said. “Even if we have a slip-up, it still won’t count against our conference record. It’s just good to test us and see where we are in the national rankings.”

The Musketeers are no slouches themselves. With a RPI sitting at No. 9, Xavier has faced off against teams better than LSU’s toughest competition. They defeated No. 24 Memphis, 63-58, during the season’s early going in November. Their 63-62 overtime win against Virginia Tech also looks quite good in light of the Hokies’ upset of then-No. 1 Wake Forest.

Xavier’s losses are almost as impressive as their wins. In late December the Musketeers dropped back-to-back games to No. 2 Duke and No. 16 Butler. They have not lost since.

All signs point to a sellout by Saturday evening. The PMAC holds a maximum capacity of 13,468, and fans have packed in crowds nearing 10,000 for both the South Carolina and Mississippi State games.

But despite all of the hype surrounding this program, Johnson is not fazed. Xavier presents the Tigers’ toughest challenge by far, but the Tigers’ first-year coach was adamant that the season is far from over no matter what.

“We have thirteen games to play and it’s not my first dance now,” Johnson said. “I told them I didn’t want to take away from their excitement because their record is what it is, but there are games to play and possessions left to compete.

“As much as it may be hard for them, they have to stay grounded and understand that they have to come out and play. There is not a team on our schedule that we aren’t capable of competing with and possibly winning, but there isn’t a team on our schedule we aren’t capable of losing to.”

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