Like last season, this could be the big turning point.
Last January, LSU was 1-5 in the SEC before downing a ranked Missouri squad at home and it was on the rest of the season for the Tigers. The pattern needs to follow.
LSU roundly dismissed notions of a damaging swoon on Tuesday night, holding off every run from a strong Missouri squad and earning arguably its best win of the season. No, this win won't earn the Tigers a bid come March, But stack this along with wins over Butler, St. Joseph's and mostly quality RPI losses, and LSU's resume looks a lot more valid now. More important is how the Tigers did it.
Vanderbilt was nice, yet ultimately not very telling. This one should be. Missouri didn't play incredible ball, but the visiting Tigers were more than game and LSU responded to every challenge. It seemed every time LSU established control, Missouri snapped back with a big 3 or a couple quick buckets.
That was more about Missouri's strengths, with long combo guards causing matchup nightmares, rather than any LSU deficiencies. After losing in such crushing fashion at Ole Miss last week, this squad needed to answer the bell against a good team. They didn't ace the test, but saying they passed it with flying colors isn't far off, either.
This was all about defense. When the home Tigers hunkered down and made Jordan Clarkson or Jabari Brown sweat around the rim, LSU controlled the action. Jordan Mickey was sensational swatting shots, Tim Quarterman showed his value defensively against long guards down the stretch and Johnny O`Bryant III held down the paint. Nothing came easy for Missouri in the final minutes, and it was the difference.
Speaking of difference makers, who saw that free-throw shooting from Anthony Hickey? He's long been considered LSU's most clutch player but he's notoriously struggled at the stripe. It seems the clutch muscle memory carried him, because those four enormous foul shots ultimately sealed the victory. Here's hoping it gets the monkey off his back at the line. He'd be a dangerous driving point guard if he has confidence shooting the free throws.
And then there's Shavon Coleman. Starting his fourth straight game, he came out firing, and his early 3s were huge kickstarts to the offense and prevented Missouri's zone from clamping down. It opened up some mid-range action for JOB and Mickey, allowed Stringer some open looks and kept Jarell Martin fresh for the whole game. LSU's offense is a different animal with Coleman playing like that.
Ultimately, this was pretty close to the LSU team it was reasonable to hope for at the beginning of the season. The bigs controlled the glass, O'Bryant was a focal point but rarely overshadowed all the options and some timely perimeter shooting kept the opponent off balance.
There's just one missing piece. The Tigers need Anthony Hickey to find his All-Defensive Team form and the sparkplug that had him outdueling Phil Pressey last year. He's been limited by foul trouble, and he's as much of a rhythm player as you can get already. But maybe a big win and those free throws will help him recapture that form. LSU was still good enough to beat a top-50 team with Hickey going 1-of-7 from the field.
LSU earned a bit of breathing room here. That could change quickly, as a trip to Coleman Coliseum and Alabama awaits. The Tigers are 0-9 there since 2005. Think about this: LSU's last three NCAA Tournament teams (including two SEC title squads) couldn't win there. That probably needs to be reversed with Bama's mediocre record this season. A win like this against Missouri makes you think it's possible.