After slogging through some SEC road trips, the Tigers finally start to get some home cooking in the middle third of league play. Four of LSU's next five are in the cozy PMAC confines and it's a tame slate mostly, a run-up to what could be a mega-showdown with No. 1 Kentucky.
But first things first, it's South Carolina tonight, a game people haven't exactly circled on the calendars, but still one that could be a welcome homecoming after a road sweep last week. This is where the Tigers can build some fan momentum and even trust that they have what it takes to be relevant come March.
The Gamecocks appeared to be one of the league's bubble contenders when SEC play began but they've struggled mightily in conference play. Unlike with most teams, there's no one head scratching result. There's no shame in losing at home to Florida, at Ole Miss, or to Tennessee and Kentucky. Even a close call at Auburn is forgivable.
The numbers bear that out too. While USC doesn't have a good RPI, it's hovering right around 50 in the KenPom ratings (which take into account offensive/defensive efficiency, SOS, "luck" etc), which is only a dozen spots or so behind LSU. The Gamecocks were good enough barely three weeks ago to beat a ranked Iowa State team on a neutral site. From that perspective, this could be a fairly even game and one the Tigers certainly better bring, if not their A game, at least a B+ effort.
That being said, this is a game where LSU has almost every conceivable advantage. USC has only acquired one true road win this year and that was at Marshall. They were drilled at Ole Miss. The Tigers will be back home in front of what should be a lively PMAC. Carolina is second-to-last in scoring in the conference, a problem against the athletic length of the LSU defense. There's little skilled height on their frontline.
I can't see this being a romp, though. The Gamecocks still have shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell, who torched the Tigers for 25 points in Columbia last year. Frank Martin makes me nervous, since his teams seem good for upsets seemingly every month. The USC defense allows just 60 points per game and is 6-1 when they hold teams below that mark, falling only to No. 1 Kentucky. Carolina's three-guard lineup is experienced and very effective at getting to the foul line, meaning Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey need to be careful. The Gamecocks even go 10 deep, which is more guys than LSU and coach Johnny Jones typically have at their disposal.
All that makes this a good tune-up for an easy portion of LSU's schedule. A slight easing off the gas pedal, if you will. A trap game without the looming heavyweight, since Mississippi State is the Tigers' next foe. The Gamecocks are good enough to come into the PMAC and get it done - they've won their last two trips to Baton Rouge.
So expect a close game, probably right around the 5.5 point line LSU is favored by. Anything less than a win is disappointing but Carolina is solid enough, despite its 1-5 league record, to make style points moot here. Get the win and move on.