With a little over a month to go before the start of this years College Basketball season, it's time to start looking ahead to some of LSU's biggest games in and out of the PMAC this year.
LSU’s first season back in the national spotlight since the late 80’s should be an exciting one. While Coach Jones and LSU AD Joe Alleva didn’t get too ambitious with scheduling, the Tigers (in an improved SEC) have a moderately difficult slate of games that includes some compelling and high-profile match-ups both in and out of conference. The year should be a huge step in the right direction, and that means getting some signature wins over the more entrenched programs on their schedule. Here’s a look at 5 games that any die-hard fan should have circled on their calendars.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores (Saturday January 2, Home)
The Tigers kick off SEC play with a real test in Nashville against a Commodores team that is projected by experts to be in the top 25. Many have proclaimed this Vanderbilt team to be 2nd or 3rd best in the SEC, though I think that’s certainly downplaying the talent and potential LSU has coming in this season. While the depth and system is certainly there, they may not have the top end talent to compete with LSU. Still, the Commodores return 7 of their top 9 players from last years’ team, and look for the former freshman core to take a leap as sophomores. Junior Damian Jones, their center, is a legit NBA Prospect, and should give the Tigers a tough time in the post against Darcy Malone or Elbert Robinson III. Regardless, this should be a great test for the younger guys against a solid SEC program who should give the Tigers everything they've got.
4. Legend’s Classic (Monday November 23, Barclays Center NY)
After opening up the season in prime time for ESPN’s kickoff weekend, LSU travels to Brooklyn’s state of the art Barclay’s Center to participate in this years Legend’s Classic. With two games scheduled, this will be LSU’s first real chance to show on a national stage what the team is going to look like this season against high-major D1 talent.
The first matchup is with Marquette and their highly touted freshman PF Henry Ellenson. The Major lure of this game will lie in Ellenson (ranked 8th in CBS draft big board) vs. Simmons, two high profile draft prospects who play the same position (though Simmons is truly more of a "positionless" player) with radically different styles. At 6’10", Ellenson is a skilled forward, a gifted passer, can score inside and outside, and has a great knack for moving the ball out of the double teams he can command in the post. He does seem to be a very mediocre athlete, but compensates with a great stroke and posses the guile and craftiness to find different ways to put the ball in the basket. While he has a considerably less talented supporting cast, Ellenson should keep the Eagles within reach of the game as long as he’s on the floor.
The second of the two matchups is with the winner of the ASU v. NC State tilt, should the Tigers take care of business against Marquette. NC State should be favored in that game, behind a strong class of recruits and a core of returners that have many thinking they’ll be a top 25 team. This is not to say that ASU is a pushover, but aside from Savon Goodman and Gerry Blakes, they don’t have much talent that registers on the same level with the other teams in the classic.
3. Texas A&M (Saturday 1:00 PM, February 13, Home)
Texas A&M will be looking to build on a strong season in 2014-2015 that ended with a quarterfinal exit in the NIT. LSU will be looking to avenge a 0-2 series sweep from last year that included two games decided in the last minutes, and should they drop the first of the two match-ups in College Station in January, they’d be looking to avoid a repeat situation here. While standouts Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey are gone for LSU, the majority of the two teams from last year return, and the Tigers will be looking to take advantage of the opportunity to assert themselves in the league. Two budding SEC programs looking to establish themselves as mainstays in the conference, the Maravich Center will certainly be rocking for this one the day before Valentine’s Day.
2. Oklahoma Sooners (Saturday Time TBD, January 30, Home)
This game is brought to you courtesy of the BIG 12/SEC Challenge, an annual tradition which brings us some of the juiciest cross-conference match-ups of the year, and I feel it should be expanded and further implemented across the five power conferences. While I love mid-major ball, an increase in cross power-conference match-ups are the most exciting, and simply for the fact that the bigger brands in college basketball would be playing each other more regularly. This would be especially true for schools whose rivalry’s have been killed as a direct result of conference realignment based on, and solely on, football money.
Oklahoma would be an important signature win for the Tigers, as many have Oklahoma as a top 5 or 10 team headed into this season. Junior guard Buddy Hield choosing to forgo the draft and return for his senior season is huge for the Sooners, who now should have their sights set on a Final Four run. Last year’s Big XII Player of the Year and All-American selection, Hield is an elite distance shooter who has the supplemental offensive skills to burn teams when they overload the arc. Big man Khadeem Lattin also figures to take a step forward this season, and Oklahoma will need him to if the Sooners hope to forge a deep run in March. Coach Lon Kruger and his squad surely have their eyes set on a deeper run, and so they’ll likely be looking to steal win in Baton Rouge over another quality tournament team.
1. Kentucky Wildcats (Saturday 2:00PM, March 5, Away)
"If you wanna be the best, you gotta beat the best."
LSU has two great opportunities to get signature win’s over the traditional heavyweight power of the SEC conference, the Kentucky Wildcats. The one I’m most interested in, is the second of the two, where Simmons and LSU will have to go into Lexington to try and end their regular season on a high-note, with a win over the Wildcats.
For many, this game is all about Skal Labissiere v. Ben Simmons. Many NBA scouts have described this draft as being only "two players deep", and these are the two. While the majority of scouting services ranks Simmons as the number 1, a good number of reputable analysts and sites have Labissiere as the top selection next summer. The Haitian 7 foot (or 6-11, depending on who you ask) prospect is a do-all similar to Simmons, with a tremendous physical frame and athletic potential. Skal is extremely fluid and moves great for his size, making him a difficult cover for bigger, less nimble defenders. He doesn’t have natural feel for the game that Simmons does yet, and he needs to prove himself more against high-level competition as he exploded onto the recruiting scene late in his high-school career. Regardless, this kid is likely going to be a killer come January. Calipari wanted him bad, and there is a reason for that.
In addition to the outstanding core he returns and Skal, Calipari also added another elite NBA prospect in PG Isaiah Briscoe and a proven sharp shooter in Juco transfer Mychal Mulder. Briscoe, the number one overall rated PG in the class of 2015, has an incredible handle, great court vision, and a reliable jumper that will keep defenses honest. He’s more than qualified to be the team’s back-up PG. Aside from the new comers, Kentcuky boasts its usual war chest of elite talent, with returners Tyl Ulis, Marcus Lee, and Alex Poythress looking to lead a team back into the national title conversation after back to back losses in the championship game and Final Four the past two years. This Wildcat team, like the others before them, will not want for talent, and it will be up to Calipari to incorporate his new talent into a group of returners that, though incredibly successful last year, undoubtedly lost their 5 best players. That’s often the case in Lexington, and Calipari has a proven track record of making it work, so there’s little doubt that this team will be no exception to the rule.
All these previously mentioned factors, plus it’s the second matchup between the two teams and the last regular season game of the year. It’s going to be a good one. They’ll have scouting books on each other as big as they get, and they could (and should, in my mind) be the best two teams in the SEC, and two of the better teams in the country. Both LSU and Kentucky will play up-tempo, which combined with the amount of talent on the floor could make for two of the more exciting games of the year. Lexington, always a tough place to go in and get a win, will be rocking come early March, in what should be a hugely important game for both programs.
While these should be some of the better match-ups on the schedule, the whole year will be filled with excitement for Tigers fans, who should be aiming to be make themselves a real factor come tournament time.