LSU played one of their best games all season on Valentine's Day, beating South Carolina in Columbia, SC by 18 points. Considering LSU lost to the Gamecocks in Baton Rouge less than a month ago, this was a huge turnaround and yet another sign of progress in Johnny Jones's first year.
I'm going to do this postgame summary in a new Q&A format. Let me know if you like the style.
1) What was the difference between the overtime loss to South Carolina in mid-January and last month's performance?
The Tigers were in one of their worst stretches of the season when they played South Carolina the first time around. The game came after a loss at Auburn and home blowout to Florida. Momentum was definitely not on LSU's side on January 16th. But even more importantly, the Tigers were taking too many outside shots and failing to convert them.
Last month against South Carolina, the Tigers shot only 40 percent from the field in part because they took 27 three-pointers. On Thursday, the Tigers shot only 13 threes because they got points inside. Even though it wasn't a sharp shooting night for Andre Stringer or Anthony Hickey, the offense wasn't stagnant since Johnny O'Bryant III had the best offensive performance of his career. He went 13-19 from the field and finished with 30 points, along with 10 rebounds. Compare that to 9 points and 6 rebounds in the first game.
JOB III has been outstanding since the early losses. He has put up double-doubles in seven of the last nine games and is playing undoubtedly the best basketball of his career.
2) Anything else? A 21-point turnaround is impressive, especially on the road.
Defense was the biggest key, outside of O'Bryant's dominance. The Gamecocks shot only 28 percent from the field for the game. LSU's defense deserves credit. They put pressure on the ball and limited South Carolina's second chance points. The Tigers had a +14 rebounding differential, yet despite the tough defense, they didn't commit stupid fouls.
In last month's game, LSU sent South Carolina to the line a whopping 37 times (and shot only 16 free throws themselves). When you're outscored by 15 points from the charity stripe, it's almost impossible to win. Last night, the Tigers had a slight free throw advantage (16 to 13) and got 2 more points from the line.
Also, the Gamecocks were just plain cold last night. They missed more open jumpers than most high school teams.
3) Who else played well for LSU besides O'Bryant?
Andrew Del Piero and Jalen Courtney took advantage of a short Gamecock frontline and played some of their best games in conference play. Both scored 6 points and pulled down a combined 11 boards. Charles Carmouche didn't shoot well (2-10, 1-6 from three), but he had 8 assists and 9 rebounds. Even with Stringer and Hickey having an off-day, LSU was able to win comfortably.
4) Does LSU have a shot at the NCAAs? Is it too early to think about March Madness?
Unfortunately, the Tigers need to do a lot more to snag a bid to the NCAAs.
LSU is 14-8 and after an 0-4 start, they have gone 5-2 against SEC opponents. The team has probably improved more than any other since the start of conference play. Unfortunately, the Tigers are still tied for 10th in the league. After Florida, there is a lot of parity.
So far, our marquee wins are against Missouri and, well, that's about it. No other team we've beaten will make the tourney except Northwestern State (assuming they win the Southland conference tournament). This really hurts the team's RPI, as do the early losses to Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina. Before last night's game, LSU was ranked 111th in the country and 9th in the conference. At-large bids generally go to teams in the top 60.
This year, the SEC will have 4 or (optimistically 5) teams in the NCAAs. If LSU wants to get in the Field of 68, we will need to either win the conference tournament to get the automatic position or win at least 6 of the last 7 conference games.
5) What's next?
LSU has a very quick turnaround. The Tigers play Mississippi State at the PMAC at 4:00 on Saturday.
PodKATT: It should not go unmentioned that SCar coach Frank Martin had the meltdown of the year in his postgame conference. It's worth watching for the entertainment value alone.