It's a new season for LSU basketball.
After taking care of business in the non-conference portion of things - I'd give them a B+ for their 11-2 effort - the Tigers hit the rigors of conference play. Just because the SEC is not currently a premier college basketball league doesn't negate the fact that league action is still a grind, as you play teams with comparable talent and coaching every 3-4 days.
LSU certainly got a tough draw, going on the road to a tough environment in Missouri before having to turn around 48 hours later and host a desperate and rested Georgia team coming off a loss. We'll see what the Tigers are made of quickly.
As for tonight's matchup, it's a favorable one in a lot of ways for LSU. Missouri is among the bottom third of the league in almost every statistical category and has really scuffled out of the gate under first-year coach Kim Anderson. The visitors will also get some help, since Mizzou is absent guard Deuce Bello due to suspension and freshman Montaque Gill-Caesar's status is up in the air with a lingering back issue. On top of that, they're an incredibly inefficient offensive squad, which should mean LSU's lanky lineup can keep them contained (unless they get hot beyond the arc, where they are 3rd in the SEC in 3-point percentage).
Missouri has shown signs of life, though, over the past few weeks. They absolutely had a neutral site game against Illinois in hand before blowing it in the waning moments and went toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State a week ago before falling in overtime. This makes me nervous, since going on the road is a dicey proposition and plenty of teams magically look different for the conference slate. On paper, this is a comfortable LSU win and yet I can't see it playing out that way.
Despite some youth and lack of cohesion, Missouri is a team that can match LSU height-wise though I'm not necessarily sure the skill is there for their interior players. But this is conference play, after all, and I expect LSU's frontline to face a bit tougher sledding. That means the perimeter will need to step up. It's not asking too much, really, for Josh Gray, Keith Hornsby and Jalyn Patterson to combine for, say, five 3-pointers and 35 points. If they do that, breathe easier, because the game may not be in question by the final whistle.
The way to make that happen is through ball movement. The Tigers have assisted on 71 percent of their made shots in the last three games, and sharing the ball like that will be crucial to keeping the offense from stagnating in an SEC road environment. Otherwise, you remember those scoring lulls that plagued LSU in November? They could re-emerge at a bad time.
I'm very curious to see how this team handles everything. If they come out and take care of business against a clearly inferior squad, it's another step toward being relevant come March. If they struggle or even lose, it's a bad omen for this squad's maturity level. We'll know a lot more about LSU after tonight, and even moreso by the end of this week.