Scouting Report: LSU
It's not a happy time in Nashville. Vanderbilt basketball, so loaded with promise and potential, continues to fall short away from home, offering a grim preview of the second and third weeks of March in an all-too-familiar narrative… unless, of course, this team can change its spots in the next month. That's always a possibility, and it's something that coach Kevin Stallings has to impress upon his players. Some of the nation's most prominent coaches – Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, Tom Izzo, Lorenzo Romar, John Beilein, Bob Huggins, Jim Calhoun, Bill Self, Jamie Dixon, Mike Krzyzewski, and Sean Miller – regularly get their teams to play at a high level in the latter stages of the regular season or in their conference tournaments. The Final Four is a separate category because of the exclusiveness of that club, but most successful programs in college basketball find a way to grow, and not shrink, after playing their first 20 to 25 games. The pretenders in this sport hit that February wall and never bounce back; the elite schools experience an ambush or two but then recover. Only one team will win the NCAA Tournament each year and only four will reach the final weekend inside a big dome with more than 50,000 seats, but dozens of schools make bold end-of-season pushes that elevate their NCAA seeds and deliver conference tournament championships or – at the very least – an appearance in the conference tournament title game. Vanderbilt is not one of those programs, and so the challenge BEFORE the NCAA Tournament is plain for Stallings, his staff, and his roster: Can Vanderbilt get a high-enough seed to avoid Kentucky until the SEC Tournament final (and thereby make the event)? Can the Commodores establish the kind of momentum that can enable them to thrive in the SEC tourney instead of wilting in it? The journey toward improvement, toward a different home stretch and an alternate narrative – one that's not what Vanderbilt fans have come to expect over the years – begins Wednesday against the LSU Tigers. It's not too late – yet – for Vanderbilt to reform its ways, but the sands of time are running through that hourglass.
Will the Dores play like a team hell-bent on doing everything it takes to eclipse previous Februaries and Marches that didn't pan out? We'll see for ourselves in Memorial Gym against the Bayou Bengals.
Here's a great trivia question: What is the last school to beat Butler before the national championship game round of the NCAA Tournament? Yes, the answer is LSU. Before Butler won five games in both the 2010 and 2011 editions of the Big Dance, LSU knocked off the Bulldogs in the first round of the 2009 NCAAs in Greensboro, North Carolina. LSU coach Trent Johnson was on the LSU bench for that game, and his previous forays to the NCAA Tournament as the head coach of the Stanford Cardinal show that he's a very capable practitioner of his craft. This season has actually burnished Johnson's reputation if you look beneath the lower-tier SEC record and the lack of NCAA tourney credentials.
LSU is clearly not a terrifically talented team, but the Tigers have nevertheless claimed their share of scalps this season, making marked improvements from a much more woeful 2010-2011 season in which they joined Auburn in a race to the bottom of the SEC. This year's LSU team is actually quite respectable. Johnson's charges beat the Rutgers team that took down Florida, and they did so on the road in Piscataway, New Jersey. LSU thumped a decent Boise State team (a team that should have won at San Diego State the other night, but for an improbable, halfway-down-and-back-out miss on the final shot of the game), knocked off top-20 Marquette, and lost to nationally-ranked Virginia by only five points. In the SEC, LSU has played roadies at Alabama, Arkansas (where no visitors get out alive), Florida, and Mississippi State while hosting Kentucky. Plenty of teams would go winless in that five-game stretch; don't view LSU as uniquely deficient by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, the Tigers don't have enough offensive weaponry, but this is a program that's getting better. Vanderbilt survived LSU last year despite taking some possessions off; that can't be the case this season. The Tigers are good enough to spring an ambush.
Center – Justin Hamilton – Junior, 6-11, 260; 2011-12: 13.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg
There are few secrets and subtleties found in Hamilton's game. The junior is a strong, powerful workhorse who plays extended minutes yet shoots better than 50 percent from the field. He pulls off this impressive feat because he pounds the boards and gets putback opportunities. Hamilton doesn't have a lot of range; he simply creates high-percentage looks near the rim. His rebounding feeds his scoring. Keeping Hamilton off the glass is one of Vanderbilt's foremost priorities in this contest.
Forward – Storm Warren – Senior, 6-7, 230 2011-12: 8 ppg, 5 rpg
While Hamilton is regularly given well over 30 minutes per game – often in the mid-30s – Warren has been rotated in and out of the starting lineup in recent weeks, but the likelihood is that he'll be part of LSU's starting five against Vanderbilt. In LSU's blowout loss to Kentucky on Jan. 28, Johnson didn't start Warren, but when the Tigers' gameday starting five performed poorly, Warren stayed on the floor for over 20 minutes and likely earned a measure of extra trust from Johnson. It has to be said – for reasons that will be dealt with when teammate Eddie Ludwig is discussed – that LSU doesn't even have a true starting five, but for what it's worth, Warren is likely to be part of it when tip-off time arrives.
Forward– Eddie Ludwig – Junior, 6-9, 215; 2011-12: 2.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg
Ludwig is a central manifestation of LSU's lack of a true starting five. He began the year playing on the wing, but when the injury bug hit the Tigers, he was rotated to the power forward spot. Yet, his lack of physicality makes him a poor fit for the position, thereby limiting his effectiveness and, hence, his minutes. (Ludwig did, however, stun everyone in Baton Rouge this past Saturday when he exploded for 12 points in the Tigers' win over Arkansas. It will be worth monitoring Ludwig's performance on Wednesday; will his performance against the Hogs be revealed as a tease, or as a sign of things to come?)
Ludwig was pushed to the power forward spot because teammate Johnny O'Bryant, a 6-9, 250-pound freshman forward collecting eight points and six rebounds per game in 20 minutes of court time, fractured his left hand in early January. O'Bryant was rounding into form at the end of December, and he was a key part of LSU's win over Marquette, the best scalp on the Tigers' resume this season. O'Bryant's injury is the event that has limited this team's progress more than anything else in 2012. O'Bryant will be on the floor in this game, however, so Vanderbilt needs to know that LSU is regenerating itself as we speak.
Guard – Ralston Turner – Sophomore, 6-6, 193; 2011-12: 9 ppg, 2.7 rpg
Turner is part of a young LSU backcourt that is currently the weakness of the team. However, one should view the Tigers' frailty on the perimeter as the product of inexperience, not deficient quality. Turner is working with a freshman point guard, Anthony Hickey, on an extended basis, and that's only because teammate Andre Stringer (who will be discussed shortly…) has not been healthy for an extended portion of this season. The lack of cohesion in the Tigers' backcourt has been the result of many factors; it's unfair to judge Turner (or any of LSU's other guards) on an absolute scale.
Guard – Anthony Hickey – Freshman, 5-10, 172; 2011-12: 9.8 ppg, 4 apg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 steals per game
Unless you're John Wall or someone similarly special, you're not going to take the SEC by storm as a 172-pound freshman point guard. Hickey is growing into his position amidst injuries and uncertainties that have continued to unfold around him. Teammate Andre Stringer, a 5-9, 170-pound sophomore who is good for 10 points and two assists per game in over 30 minutes of playing time, experienced a fainting spell in a Dec. 10 practice and missed the next five games as a precautionary measure. With O'Bryant removed from the picture for a few weeks in the frontcourt and Stringer out of the mix for several weeks as well, Hickey has found it hard to establish the rapport with his teammates which is so essential for a point guard. It's impressive, when you think about it, that LSU has been as competitive as it's been over the past month in light of all the disruptions it has absorbed.
Other reserves for LSU include forward Malcolm White and guards Chris Bass and John Isaac. However, with the O'Bryant and Stringer injuries wreaking havoc with the starting five, it's enough of a challenge for Johnson to put a cohesive starting five on the floor. LSU already has a seven-man rotation without White, Bass and Isaac. Incorporating these other three reserves into the mix can't be viewed as a foremost concern for the LSU coaching staff.
Keys to the Game
1) Board up on Hamilton. Vanderbilt will need to rebound at a high level if it wants to beat Kentucky later this month… and beat Florida at home… and win the SEC Tournament… and go far in March. Might as well develop good habits against LSU's best and most formidable interior player.
2) Don't make life easy for the young LSU guards. Vanderbilt's backcourt got outplayed and outworked by Florida's guards this past Saturday. LSU's perimeter players don't offer the same challenge, but this game must nevertheless become a time when the Commodores have to assert themselves away from the painted area. LSU is stronger in the low post than it is on the wings. If Vanderbilt can't dominate in the backcourt, this game could be uncomfortably close at the final (under-four) media timeout of the second half.
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