With a 79-63 win over Bethune-Cookman on Saturday, the LSU Tiger basketball team ended its non-conference slate, moving forward and into SEC play with steadily growing confidence. LSU ran its record to 9-2 on the season with the victory, and by all indications, the Tigers are ready to take the plunge into conference play under first-year head coach Johnny Jones.
“We try to utilize the preseason in preparation for conference play,” Jones said. “It’s great being 9-2, but anytime you play in-conference, people play more on edge. Every night’s going to be a dog fight.”
The non-conference schedule saw the Tigers face their share of legitimate competition. They went toe-to-toe with two squads from the vaunted Big East conference, coming from behind to defeat Seton Hall at home, and dropping a tight game in the closing minutes at Marquette. Other than the buzz-saw the Tigers ran into on a trip to Boise State, Jones’ squad has navigated this young season with no other blemishes, and in sometimes impressive fashion.
LSU has established itself with an up-tempo style of play that’s capable of manufacturing points in bunches. Going into Saturday’s contest, the Tigers led the SEC in steals per game, as well as 3-pointers made per game. They have scored 70 or more points in 10 of their 11 games, a stark contrast to last season, when they cracked the 70-point plateau only nine times total.
Such immediate signs of improvement from the lackluster Trent Johnson era are noticeable to LSU supporters, and there is a definite buzz surrounding the program.
This team will have no time to bask in any excitement, however, because the SEC schedule kicks off on Wednesday night with a trip to Auburn. The Tigers of LSU claim to be ready for the challenge, and they feel well-prepared by an adequate non-conference schedule.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” said junior guard Andre Stringer. “We’ve got some away games under our belt. We’ve been through a storm a little bit already.”
Suffocating perimeter defense has been key to LSU’s success thus far, and they employ a formidable guard rotation that features Stringer, Anthony Hickey, Charles Carmouche, and Corban Collins. In the post, LSU has relied heavily on forward Shavon Coleman, while power forward Johnny O’Bryant III has battled injuries.
The Tigers have also benefitted from the surprising-yet-steady development of 7-foot-3 center Andrew Del Piero, who scored a career-high 10 points on Saturday. A former tuba player in the LSU band, Del Piero has become a true presence in the paint on both ends of the floor.
As a team, however, LSU has not played with sufficient defensive consistency to contend in the SEC, and has struggled with its free throw shooting, which is just a tad above 60 percent on the season. But these Tigers seem to have the confidence that they can make the necessary adjustments.
“We’re very excited about conference play,” said Carmouche. “We’re proud to be 9-2 right now. We just want to keep proving people wrong, and start the Johnny Jones era off the right way.”