Tonight at 6:00 CT, the hoops version of the Tiger Bowl takes place in Baton Rouge as the Auburn Tigers battle the LSU Tigers. It is the first meeting of two or more this year for the 11-6 (1-2) teams, and both are hoping that they can get back to .500 in league play. Auburn is coming off a solid week, as they defeated Mississippi in double overtime, as well as had moderate success against Kentucky before falling. LSU, on the other hand, is coming off consecutive road losses to Alabama and Arkansas respectively.
The story of the Auburn season can kind of be summed up by one grunt, "meh". Nothing that they have done yet is really all that impressive, and at times they have had games where they looked downright awful. Still, they are in contention for a postseason bid, most likely an NIT or worse, with a winning 11-6 record. The War Eagles are led by senior forward Kenny Gabriel, who is averaging over 11 points a game and nearly 8 rebounds. Defensively, he's also solid and averages 2.8 blocks a game, though that's still quite far off the mark that Anthony Davis has to lead the SEC as well as the country.
I've seen Auburn play a couple of times this season, and it's really tough to figure out what to make of the team. They looked inspired and focused for about 35 minutes against Kentucky before the elite talent of Kentucky won out. I also saw them against Long Beach State, who is a mid major though they might be not only an NCAA team, but NCAA game winner. LBSU totally crushed them and held them to nearly a season low of 43 points. The lowest was against Vanderbilt to open SEC play when they only managed 35.
Last year this series was a split, with both teams winning on the road. The final regular season game for both teams was played in Baton Rouge and as mentioned before Auburn won. Although mostly ceremonial at that point, the loss sent LSU to the 12th spot in the SEC standings.
The good news for LSU is that Earnest Ross is no longer playing for Auburn, and he was responsible for 16 points and 10 rebounds in that game. I would consider him Auburn's best player from last year, and it's helpful to LSU that he is no longer there. The bad news is that Gabriel is still there, and he was responsible for 16 points and 11 rebounds in that game. LSU will absolutely need to do a better job of making sure he doesn't beat them.
As for LSU, losing the past two games certainly has me biting my nails wondering if it is the same old LSU team, or if they truly have improved. Out of conference play was somewhat successful, and we opened with a huge win over Ole Miss and looked fantastic in that game. We've battled some injuries throughout the year, but overall we are in good shape still.
All that said, this is the kind of game that LSU really needs to win. With 3 of the following games against ranked teams, a loss here means that a 3 game winning streak likely turns into a 6 game losing streak and sends us back to the basement. Despite the fact that LSU has played some ranked teams already, and played them well, momentum was on our side in those games.
This game against Auburn has to be a game that we both win, and win resoundingly. It's not that I think LSU is far and away a superior team to Auburn, because I think both teams are heavily flawed. It has to be the team's effort and fire that wins the game. They need the seniors to say "enough is enough" and play a game without too many mistakes.
Again, luckily for LSU, Auburn is a good team to have that game again. Thus far, in all but one loss, Auburn has failed to score 60 points, a mark that LSU prides itself on holding teams below. Auburn isn't a very high scoring team, and kenpom's projections put Auburn near the bottom of the country in offensive efficiency. Unfortunately, I don't have the pay information so I can't tell you why, but the matrix spits out a very poor offensive rating. It also spits out that they have played an extremely weak out of conference schedule, which you can see with their relative lack of big games other than FSU and Seton Hall.
LSU scores much better through the season on the defensive side of the court. With an overall ranking adjusted for 21, LSU is one of the better defensive teams in the country. They come out significantly higher in the overall rankings at 77, basically telling us that we aren't crazy for thinking we are a bubble team. Having seen the team play, we know that it's mostly due to strong defensive rebounding, strong shooting percentage defense, and a somewhat good ability to force turnovers. LSU's pace is quite slow, which also tells us what we already know, we don't get out on the fast break too much.
What does it all mean?: It means that I think LSU gets it done tonight on the defensive side of the ball. Both teams are relatively poor offensively, but LSU is significantly better defensively. We've been tested against some really good offensive players and teams, and still shown the ability to keep doing what we do.
It won't be pretty. I don't expect LSU to have highlight reel dunks, or hot shooting from the outside. I expect it to be grinded out, lots of low shooting percentages, and lots of rebounds. A hot player could certainly help either team, but I would expect the bulk of the shots to come from forwards.
Vegas says that LSU is about 9 points better in this game and that it will be ugly with an over/under of 120. That's kind of what we already knew, hold Auburn under 60 and we will win. I don't think with such a slow pace that I would take LSU and give up the points, but anything can happen. It's the kind of game I wouldn't bet on because I think the outcome will be far in either direction. LSU blowout, or LSU loss. Kind of like what we have already seen with the 3 SEC games we have played.
As mentioned before, tip-off is set for 6:00 CT and the game can be seen on ESPNU. That means it's also available online, and lucky for the away people, when it's an ESPNU game the quality is significantly better.
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