Typically, when we talk about wins being "valuable" in college basketball, it's in reference to the all-consuming RPI and resume necessary for NCAA Tournament chances come March.
That's not exactly the case with this come-from-behind win in Birmingham on Thursday night. After all, how much help can beating a now 4-7 team from Conference USA provide for your strength of schedule?
But that's missing the point of the value the Tigers gleaned from this game. Be it the road environment, the shorthanded lineup or extremely useful minutes for a couple necessary future contributors, LSU gained a lot more than just a win that should be the last obstacle to an 11-2 record by the time SEC play hits.
Let's start with Josh Gray's absence. Just as Gray was hitting his stride, the ankle injury from last weekend held him out of Thursday's game. Being thin in the backcourt already, LSU was forced to run Jalyn Patterson out there for over 30 minutes. This was about double as much action as he's seen in any game yet this season, and it was on the road against a guard-oriented team. This seemed like a situation ripe for disaster.
But you know what? He absolutely answered the bell, on the stat sheet and otherwise. He had 11 points, three assists, three steals and drilled a hat trick of 3-pointers that helped the Tigers flip a six-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead. Once LSU took the lead on Patterson's corner trey with 16+ minutes left, there was no looking back. Just as importantly, he didn't turn the ball over once, and the team did so only 10 times. LSU will need more poise like that in SEC arenas, and now there should be little doubt Patterson can bring it, even as a freshman.
It was a remarkably good sign to see LSU really turn on the jets offensively in the second half. LSU pumped out a ridiculous 1.4 points per possession in the final period - and again, this was on the road without their STARTING POINT GUARD. For a team that looked lost as recently as three weeks ago, this was a mini statement, only diminished a little to recognize that UAB is an OK team, nothing more. Still, when you can get almost 50 points from Jarell Martin and Keith Hornsby, and it doesn't feel like a fluke, you've got the right pieces to be a consistently prolific offense.
It was really a tale of two halves on the other end. UAB poured in the shots early on, fueled partly by their own adrenaline and some poor rebounding on LSU's part. Just like I predicted in the game preview, the Tigers dug themselves a double-digit hole out of the gate before getting it together. And as great as the offense was, it wouldn't have mattered had LSU not clamped down on the Blazers.
After allowing 39 points and a lay-up line in the opening half, they held UAB to 37 percent shooting in the final 20 minutes. Even though Jordan Mickey was erratic offensively, his seven blocked shots and numerous altered shots kept UAB off the foul line and away from the rim after halftime. When the home team pulled within 65-62 down the stretch, they would only make one field goal in the next 5.5 minutes. For a team that essentially played five guys most of the game, to get stronger with the game on the line, in an opponent's gym (for the second time in a row), suggests this team has the mental and physical makeup necessary to lead LSU back to the NCAA Tournament.
This is a game LSU would have consistently lost in any of the last five seasons, across the Trent Johnson and Johnny Jones eras. A cursory glance at recent slates shows devastating early-season losses to the likes of Boise State, Auburn, Coastal Carolina and South Alabama. This looked a lot like one of those in the making.
Instead, the Tigers looked like a bunch that actually knows how to finish. And that's a valuable skill to cultivate in college basketball, especially with the heavy lifting in non-conference action now behind them.