Where was this team on the road all season?
Better late than never, as LSU came out focused and pulled away from a pesky San Francisco squad on the West Coast.
The Tigers were efficient and poised, holding off a late rally and finally playing some defense in an opposing arena. For a team that finished last in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage defense, a 3-of-23 night for the Dons beyond the arc shows serious improvement in LSU's close-outs. Of course, USF missed some wide open ones, but the point was they had to take so many. The Tigers held San Fran out of the lane, which allowed them to focus on defending the 3-point line. LSU will take 23 3-point attempts any day.
That defensive effort complemented a mercurial but effective offensive outing. It was a strange game for Johnny O'Bryant III, who wasn't spectacular but also limited mistakes. Though he had just 13 points and six rebounds, that 1 in the turnover column and consistently crisp passing out of double teams helped LSU maximize possessions. Though LSU supposedly killed the Dons down low, Jordan Mickey was only solid. This game was won because the Tigers knocked down timely treys during a second-half stretch that created some necessary separation. Andre Stringer, Shavon Coleman, Anthony Hickey and Tim Quarterman all hit an important 3-ball during the deciding 17-5 run.
That was after Jarell Martin propped up a lethargic attack in the first half. Though still out of control in spurts, Martin looked like a new player after declaring he'd be back for another season. Following an opening airball, he was a force at the 3 for LSU, bludgeoning to the rim and throwing down some powerful dunks. Postseason experience and another offseason at the college level should propel Martin to a big career in Baton Rouge. That he flourished on the road, in a postseason game, as the third or fourth option, bodes well for LSU next year.
Regardless of what happens at No. 1 seed SMU on Monday, this is a win to build program momentum. It's just the second postseason win since the 2006 Final Four run and the first since 2009. Yes, expectations for an NCAA Tournament berth weren't met, but playing this late in March shouldn't be ignored, either. I've never liked the idea that winning big in the NIT is better than losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But there's also ample proof in recent years of teams using deep NIT runs to spur a big NCAA run the following season.
The team that showed up in San Francisco looks like a team capable of doing just that. No one's going to mistake LSU for a sudden juggernaut. Still, it's hard to build a program without postseason wins. The Tigers checked the bare minimum off the list, but the way they did it makes you feel a little better about the direction of Johnny Jones' tenure.