When LSU opened the season against Louisiana-Monroe last month, there was a little of the expected mixed with the always-welcomed pleasant surprise.
Guard Bo Spencer scored a career-high 23 points in 38 minutes of action. In 36 minutes, forward Tasmin Mitchell – the presumed leader of the 2009-2010 Tiger team – netted 15 points, five rebounds and three steals.
Those were the levels of production that head coach Trent Johnson expected from his experienced talents.
Yet, the glory went to Storm Warren, a Monroe native making his first career start who stole the show with his opening night double-double (15 points and 12 rebounds). An animal on both ends of the floor, the sophomore added four assists and blocked three shots.
Against Indiana State three nights later, Warren did it again – this time by way of 14 points and 12 rebounds. With 10 points from both Spencer and freshman forward Dennis Harris, and 14 rebounds from Mitchell – one shy of his career high – the Tigers advanced to the second round of the Dick’s Sporting Goods NIT Tipoff against Western Kentucky.
Against a Hilltoppers side that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March, the Tigers fought back from a halftime deficit to take the 71-60 win and punch their ticket to New York City for the NIT Finals.
Once again, it was Spencer and Warren that carried that load. Spencer scored a career-high 28 points – his biggest bucket on a 3-pointer with the scored tied at 57 with 2:48 to play. Warren recorded a career-high 20 points and 11 rebounds, his third double-double in as many games.
A trip to The City for the Thanksgiving holidays brought better competition and different results.
In an 81-55 loss to Connecticut, Spencer shot 2-of-15 from the floor and Warren was the lone player to reach double-digit scoring.
In Friday’s consolation game, the Tigers led Arizona State 34-27 at intermission. Then LSU went colder than weather outside Madison Square Garden.
After shooting over 60 percent in the first frame, the Tigers were held to 5-of-25 from the field in the second half – and Mitchell and Warren were the only players to score from the field until Chris Beattle hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
Back in Baton Rouge on Monday, Johnson addressed the media on how his team – though undermanned and hit with injury (Spencer did not play against ASU) – brought not finger-pointing back from the winless trip, but simply lessons learned.
“When you start talking about the things that you think will be a concern throughout the year – your sense of urgency, how hard you run and transition defense – I told them, ‘OK, now you guys understand what we’re talking about.’
“What I learned just coming back from the second game versus a good team that is probably going to be in the tournament is that we have a lot of work to do, but we’re not that far off.”
At 3-2, staying afloat this December – and throughout SEC play in January and February – will be marked by the progress of the entire roster, not just the fresh faces.
“Guys have to understand, and I’m not talking about any one or two guys. I’m talking about everybody,” Johnson said. “Bo and Tasmin are part of the experienced group, and now they understand their roles and how much harder and how much more locked in they have to be in every possession. We’re very capable. It’s just going to take time, but we’re going to get better.”
Picking up the pieces from New York begins Tuesday night in Baton Rouge when LSU welcomes Louisiana-Lafayette, a team that fell to 1-3 after a 60-58 nail-biting loss to McNeese. In their three losses, the Ragin’ Cajuns have been defeated by a combined 13 points.
Johnson said that Spencer’s status for the game remains uncertain, and that a final decision would come after Tuesday afternoon’s shoot-around. Spencer did not practice on Monday.
If he is held back, former walk-on guard Zach Kinsley will get the start. Kinsley scored 14 points in 39 minutes of action against ASU.
“We have a very good basketball team and a very talented team coming in that we struggled against and were very lucky to beat last year,” Johnson said. “It’s important that we come out tomorrow, and we play well, play like we’re capable of, defend, rebound, take care of it and go from there.”