It's back home for the holidays for the LSU basketball team, and now they've got a few gifts coming their way.
Starting tonight with College of Charleston, there's no reason LSU should be seriously tested before SEC play in a trio of home games versus lightweights. In other words, an 11-2 start should be all but wrapped and under the tree, ready to enjoy come the new year.
This is not to say that the Cougars provided no challenge to the Tigers, just that a team with the kind of postseason hopes LSU enjoys shouldn't be sweating out a home game with them.
CoC runs out an extremely balanced lineup, with the scoring load almost equally distributed. Like a lot of smaller schools, they feature a three-guard lineup that likes to work the perimeter and pass in transition. Normally, that's right up LSU's alley but Josh Gray's continued absence with a sprained ankle makes it a nominally tougher task.
Gray is almost certainly out and with good reason - there's no reason to rush him back for these games. Let him heal up and be ready for the SEC opener at Missouri on Jan. 8. Also, the performance on the road against UAB should eliminate much doubt about the Tigers' ability to pick up the slack in his absence, especially against a mid-major like Charleston.
Keith Hornsby and Jalyn Patterson are coming off their finest moments in purple and gold and they'll be focal points of the offense again, necessary to stretch the defense away from Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey near the rim. I expect Hornsby, in particular, to really continue his versatile scoring ways. We knew he was a shooter coming into the season but his array of running bank shots, slippery lay-ins and pull-ups has been a welcome surprise.
More important may be LSU's defensive effort. The Blazers picked the Tigers apart in the first half, catching them napping a bit and maybe not respecting their opponent enough. The Cougars could easily get hot from 3-point range, where they take more than a third of their shots and really stretch defenses away from the basket, clearing the way for offensive rebounds. LSU has struggled rebounding the last two games - something that should almost never happen given the size on the roster - and any lapses there might not just mean an extra shot for CoC. It might mean an extra 3 points.
Charleston is not a great team by any stretch; they might not even be as good as UAB or Sam Houston. But they are tested this season, with that 5-6 record including losses to the likes of UConn, Texas A&M, West Virginia and Davidson. That's a lot of teams at or near LSU's level. They won't play afraid, especially in a likely dead PMAC, given the absence of students and Monday before Christmas 8 p.m. tipoff.
Still, the Tigers are currently on a five-game winning streak and riding some serious momentum. A sixth win tonight would tie for the longest run since the first half-dozen games of the Johnny Jones era. In fact, LSU has only won six in a row twice since the 2008-09 season. Tiger hoops fans aren't really used to this and I don't know one who is supremely confident in this team just yet.
LSU can change that by finally running an inferior team off the floor, cruising to a 20-point win. I don't see that happening given Gray's absence, but the less work the better when it comes to opening those presents, right?