You know who doesn't suck this year? LSU.
That's not exactly high praise, but after the Tigers slogged through a pair of seasons where they went a combined 5-27 in the SEC, Bayou fans can't help but feel a little bit better about LSU's 13-9 season so far. Louisiana State has climbed from the basement to the middle of the conference behind the developing play of some young guns.
Of the team's top six scorers, only one was on the 2009-2010 team that went 2-14 in SEC play - Storm Warren. Center Justin Hamilton is a junior transfer from Iowa State, and he leads the team in scoring, rebounds, and blocks. Andre Stinger, Anthony Hickey, Ralston Turner, and Johnny O'Brien are all sophomores or younger. This hungry core of underclassmen - made up mostly of three and four-star recruits - have driven the Tigers to some big wins this season, including a home win over #10 Marquette early in the season.
We could call this a trap game had the Commodores not gone 0-2 last week. Vanderbilt will have their backs against the wall after losing games in Fayetteville and Arkansas. A loss to the Tigers would put the 'Dores on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and Saturday's visit from #1 Kentucky would do nothing to ease their performance concerns.
Fortunately for Vanderbilt, LSU's young team has struggled on the road this season, going 3-5. Their best win was against 141st ranked Rutgers in that stretch. Can the 'Dores keep them from earning their second win over a top 50 team on Wednesday? Let's look to South Alabama for some inspiration.
Louisiana State (13-9, unranked, #89 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
The Jaguars overcame a 10 point halftime deficit to rally past LSU in Baton Rouge back in December. Freddie Goldstein's jumper at the buzzer knotted the game at 69 apiece, and South Alabama rolled that momentum into a four-point win. It was USA's only win this season over a team ranked in the top 125 of the RPI.
Key to Destruction: Clutch shooting. The Jaguars trailed by 11 points with under eight minutes to play, but kicked things into gear to rally for the victory. Over that span, the team shot 8-12 from the floor, sinking five jumpers and getting six more points at the rim to erase LSU's lead. A spurt of fast break points put the Tigers on their heels, and then some timely, clutch shooting lifted them to overtime while LSU struggled. This 19-8 run led to the worst loss of the season for Trent Johnson's team.
Keys to the Game:
- Get inside, use position. South Alabama beat LSU up on the boards, holding a +10 rebounding advantage that helped them cover for 17 turnovers. The Jaguars aren't a huge team. Their starting center Augustine Rubit is just 6'6". However, they were able to control the paint and that led to easy baskets in the interior. Rubit and 6'6" power forward Javier Carter, combined for 31 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks, and just five fouls between them. If South Alabama can do that, Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne should be able to put up similar numbers at the very least.
- Use your depth. Three of South Alabama's bench players earned 18 minutes or more in the overtime win. These reserves combined for 24 points on an efficient 8-13 shooting. They also pulled down 13 rebounds. If Vanderbilt can generate similar production from Steve Tchiengang, Rod Odom, and either Dai-Jon Parker or Kedren Johnson, it would be a huge positive for the Commodores. Vandy's bench struggled against Florida. Wednesday's game against LSU presents an opportunity for them to get back on track with a solid performance.
- Attack Storm Warren. Warren is this team's senior leader and the only upperclassman amongst their starting five. Against USA, he fouled out early in overtime, and his last foul gave South Alabama a lead that they wouldn't relinquish. Warren has plenty of experience playing against the Commodores. He's averaged 12 points per game in the past two years against Vanderbilt, but has also fouled out of each contest. Removing him from the game takes away LSU's most experienced player, and in a hostile environment like Memorial Gym that could be a huge factor in a close game.
LSU is a solid challenge for a Commodore team that needs to get back on track. The Tigers will bring a young, hungry team to Nashville that will be looking for another high profile win to put on their resume. However, Kevin Stallings's team won't be taking them for granted, even with a Kentucky showdown looming on the horizon. Vanderbilt badly needs a win here, and they'll be the more talented team playing on their homecourt. While LSU will push them, Vandy is the betting favorite for good reason. A defeat Wednesday would be a deflating loss for these 'Dores.