It should be fairly obvious, but this week is the most crucial for LSU outside of SEC play this season.
After an uneven November start and without much meat on the non-conference bone afterwards, a home matchup with UMass and a daunting road trip to No. 16 West Virginia will tell us a lot about LSU. And that's not just limited to the on-floor product.
Because of a loser's bracket run through the Paradise Jam and a silky-soft approach to scheduling, LSU's resume will hinge a lot on this upcoming 48-hour stretch. That's a scary reality for a team that hasn't gelled at all, with a new backcourt and some of the same problems that are now trends under Johnny Jones.
The remarkable thing about November is how little we know about LSU still. Only in last Saturday's 83-72 win over McNeese St. did LSU get significant offensive contributions off the bench. Brian Bridgewater looked like Shavon Coleman circa fall 2012, bruising inside as an undersized power forward and snaring rebounds he had no business getting. Jalyn Patterson finally showed something with a couple 3-pointers.
But before that, LSU looked to be too heavily reliant on its primary core of four: Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin, Keith Hornsby and Josh Gray. Even that was dubious, with Hornsby misfiring badly beyond the arc and Gray struggling with turnovers and to run a fluid offense. The McNeese game, when Mickey sat, may have been a great learning experience for this team, and just in time, too.
Something hasn't quite clicked right. Maybe that's to be expected at this point in the season. It's not like LSU has been awful on either end, coming in among the top 100 teams on offense and defense in points per 100 possessions, per Kon Pomeroy's metrics. Then again, those numbers have come against a OOC schedule rated 260th, so there's not particularly much to brag about. There's just the feeling that the team hasn't come up with the right plays at the right time yet.
Even against Texas Tech, it took some massive Red Raider gaffes to help LSU erase a frankly embarrassing 12-point deficit and that still took overtime. Against Old Dominion, foul trouble aided a Monarch run early in the 2nd half and the Tigers couldn't ever climb out of it. In the Clemson defeat, LSU lost a slew of loose ball scrums, missed several free throws down the stretch (despite being pretty damn good at the stripe otherwise this season) and squandered a four-point lead with two minutes to play.
Going forward - and I can't believe I'm writing this after last season - LSU really needs to run things through Tim Quarterman more. Starting him against McNeese was a good start, if only because his relentless energy and improved court vision functions marginally better in this offense. I've liked what I've seen from Josh Gray at times, but he doesn't have Quarterman's defensive chops or rebounding tenacity. Then again, Quarterman's shot still needs major work and Gray is more under control getting to the rim. Either way, don't be surprised if LSU goes small more often in December, with Elbert Robinson III being phased out of the rotation and Bridgewater, Patterson and Quarterman eating up those minutes.
In the frontcourt, it's honestly been pretty ho-hum. So long as LSU doesn't have consistent perimeter shooting, Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin will find more tough sledding in the paint via double teams than you'd like. Mickey, especially, is prone to turnovers through traveling violations and putting the ball on the floor. He's been absolutely sensational at times, but the coaching staff needs to open up the floor a bit. Against the Cowboys and Gardner Webb, Martin looked like a premier featured option. That hasn't carried over against some tougher teams, but his highlight-reel dunks and ability to finish at the free-throw line bodes well. While not a super duo just yet, the potential is there.
Overall, it's fair to say the jury is still out on this team in a big way. The margin for error is thin with the Paradise Jam defeats and there won't be much excitement with some lackluster home games during the holidays. Honestly, a split versus the Minutemen and Mountaineers would be solid; at the very least, it would keep LSU from having a non-existent resume.
Expect this week to be LSU's last chance to impress or implode before 2015 rolls around. It should be a fascinating week for Tiger hoops fans.