Even though UNC takes on FSU at only 1:00 in the afternoon, ESPN has officially had their first college Gameday show of the season. While the opening match ups of the season aren't nearly as anticipated as the last ones, today is the day you could say that the lights get just a little bit brighter. The games matter just a little bit more. The stakes are a little bit higher.
Week by week, the games become more important as teams figure out how many more they need to win, and who they need to lose. The bubble teams get popped, and the conference champions are crowned. It's officially less than two months until Selection Sunday.
Today, LSU takes on their second straight road challenge against the up and down Arkansas Razorbacks. Up and down is a great way to describe both the Hogs season thus far, as well as their style of play. First year head coach Mike Anderson runs the highly active, pressure defense known as 40 minutes of hell. It's a system that will trade lay ups, put up NBA-like scores, be highly entertaining, and sometimes frustrating to the teams that don't know how to beat it.
LSU may be one of those teams. Thus far, LSU has still not figured out how to effectively handle the press. The worst part is that the best way to beat a press is to attack it, but LSU has not been able to do that so far. I've often outlined why I think that might be: lack of experience, lack of guard size, and lack of a gameplan.
Today's game will be a game of redemption for one team, as both Arkansas and Louisiana State are coming off of losses in their previous game. Arkansas fell on the road to Mississippi, while LSU did so to Alabama. Both games were on Wednesday.
Arkansas was thought to be a team that would have an outside shot at an NCAA tournament bid. Thus far, it looks highly unlikely that they will earn an at large bid based on what they have done so far. Their non-conference performance was a disappointment, with losses to Houston, UConn, and Oklahoma. They redeemed themselves a little bit with a quality win over Mississippi State to open SEC play, so it's entirely possible that the Hogs have recovered from the blow of losing Marshawn Powell for the season.
Now, the story of Arkansas is the emergence of BJ Young. Young was a very, very highly rated recruit that has produced more than perhaps any other freshmen guard in the SEC, including Bradley Beal and Marquis Teague. Even though he's young in age, he's been the on-floor leader. His statistics are shiny, 14 points a game, 43% shooting from 3, and over 50% from the floor.
The Hogs essentially play 9 players a game, and the production is mixed pretty equally after that. Sophomore Mardracus Wade is the next highest scorer and shoots it very well himself. It's a lot harder for teams to scout Arkansas because of their balance, though that's expected with rapid substitutions and evenly split playing time.
It was rebounding, however, that beat Arkansas last game. Ole Miss had 46, Arkansas had 22. Despite having 23(?!) turnovers, Ole Miss still one with relative ease.
As for LSU, it was a painful loss for the fans, but honestly it wasn't all that crushing to the team's hopes for postseason play. Alabama is on the cusp of being ranked again, and if they win today there won't be any doubt that they deserve a top 25 spot. LSU isn't at the level where they can go into a top 25 team's gym and beat them, especially one with a long streak of wins there.
Justin Hamilton had a horrible game, as did Storm Warren. The only player that really played well was Anthony Hickey, but even he was limited due to the pressure from Alabama's bigger guards and the pressure. He was our leading scorer, and nearly our leading rebounder despite status as co-smallest man on the floor.
What to look for today: simply how LSU handles the pressure. It's the first time they will see a system like this designed to create havoc. If they can remain calm on the road and against the pressure, they will win. Expect the offensive gameplan in the half court to simply put up good shots and go for the rebound. Hamilton and Warren will have to be sharp and have a game similar to the forwards of Ole Miss.
Arkansas opens as 5 point favorites which isn't all that shocking. An over/under of 133 suggests that Vegas thinks it will be a lower scoring game than the Hogs saw against Mississippi State. A low scoring game would help immensely for LSU, due to their defensive based gameplan.
Most games I have a pick in mind, but today I really don't know what to expect. Thus far, LSU has done very well in responding to losses. Only once have they followed a loss with another, and that was way back in November. Even then they still came back with two wins in two consecutive days after that.
I really would like to take LSU in this game, but I don't like taking them in a game with the press defense. It's their kryptonite, and if they don't come out and set the tone it will be a blow out. If I'm betting I take Arkansas.
Tip-off is set for 8:00 CT. The game can be seen on CST or FSN if I am reading the press release correctly. ESPN3 will have the game for those not in SEC states.
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Also of note: Ronald Martin will join the team. He's a football walk on.