The Southeastern Conference regular season champs will have had six days to prepare for the conference tournament, and after Thursday’s first round action, LSU (25-6, 13-3) now knows who its next opponent will be – Kentucky.
LSU looked like a tired team in its last two outings which were both losses. Vanderbilt defeated the Tigers, 75-67, last Wednesday, and three days later Auburn handed Trent Johnson’s club its worst loss in league play by 16 points.
The Tigers have three starters averaging 30 or more minutes a game in Marcus Thornton (31.5), Tasmin Mitchell (32.2) and Bo Spencer (30.6), while Garrett Temple is just below that threshold at 29.9 minutes a contest. No other team in the conference that is in contention for an at-large berth in NCAA tournament play has that many starters that log as many minutes on the floor as LSU does.
Johnson has never been one to make excuses and that has trickled down to his players. But make no mistake about it, the Tigers were glad to get some time off before making their way to Tampa for the 2009 SEC Tournament.
“It’s really big. In the last two games, we didn’t play LSU ball,” said junior forward Tasmin Mitchell. “We can make excuses like we weren’t ready or tired or breaking down, but they were just better than us those nights. The rest period is a great thing to have.”
The competition may have been better on both of those nights, but the stats that LSU posted against the Commodores and Tigers were uncharacteristic of the numbers they put up in the previous 14 league games.
Heading into last Wednesday’s matchup with Vanderbilt, LSU was shooting 47 percent from the field and knocking down 37 percent from 3-point range in SEC play. The Tigers were also averaging 78 points a game in conference action.
The last two outings were a completely different story though.
LSU closed out the regular season by hitting only 34 percent from the floor and 22 percent from beyond the arc, and the 67 and 53 points scored were the two lowest point totals since the league opener against Alabama with 53 being the season low all together.
Like Mitchell said, you have to give the opponents credit, but at the same time you have to recognize that this was a tired group of players heading down the stretch.
Of LSU’s six wins prior to the Vanderbilt matchup, the Tigers could have dropped three games had it not been for some late heroics.
The latest heroics came in Lexington when Tasmin Mitchell knocked down a three with 10 seconds left to lift the Tigers to a 73-70 victory.
Now, for Johnson and LSU, the chore is getting ready for what could be three games in three days.
If LSU is going to make a run in Tampa and secure a higher seed for the NCAA tournament, someone is going to have to step up and provide some quality minutes off the bench to give the starters a breather. LSU has three reserves averaging double figure minutes in Terry Martin (16.1), Quintin Thornton (14.1) and Chris Bass (10.5).
Johnson said that there will be no looking ahead to the NCAA tournament or making any excuses, and his team will approach tournament time just as it has every game to date.
“We’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing all year long, trying to win the first game,” said the headman. “I fully expect that there are going to be some guys like there have been all year long – Storm Warren’s contributions in Lexington, Ky., Quintin Thornton and what he’s done, Alex Farrer and what he did against a good Ole Miss team and Terry Martin.
“Our roles and everything are not going to change. We played 31 games. We’re 25-6. That’s behind us now, but to say we are going to do something different, no.”
Something different that LSU will want to do is come out on top against the Wildcats and avoid going into the NCAA tournament with a three-game losing streak.
“It’s really important. We don’t want to go into the NCAA tournament with a three-game losing streak,” said sophomore guard Bo Spencer. “The media and ESPN will think that LSU basketball is a fluke, and we don’t want to go in with a losing streak. We want to go in on top, so we can get a good seed and have good games in the tournament.”
The extra time off should help the Tigers get some spring in their jump and get them ready for the grind of tournament time.
LSU has a veteran group that has experience in the post-season with five seniors, and three players were a part of the 2005-06 club that made it to the Final Four.
Experience, however, will only carry you so far and for LSU to make a run in Tampa and beyond, the recipe is quite simple.
“For us, it’s just about being consistent and doing the things we’ve done all year long,” said Johnson.