Well, at least LSU fans had something to cheer about this weekend.
In as low-key of a debut as you could get under the circumstances, the freshman-led Tiger squad handled business on Friday night versus McNeese St. That's the first thing to appreciate immediately. There's some positives in high numbers mixed with some question marks but ultimately, LSU put away a mid-major early and with relative ease. That hasn't always happened the last couple years. So a 34-point lead midway through the 2nd half is nothing to scoff at. The potential and the pitfalls were on display, but LSU's young talent lived up to the billing early.
I wrote in the season preview that Ben Simmons would be an impact player well beyond the points column and the first game was a prime example of that. He didn't particularly overwhelm with his shot selection or ability at the rim, but he played more like a role player. That's more of a description of his effort than a dig at his game. He pulled down 13 rebounds along with 11 points and added five assists. This was just a teaser, as Simmons didn't need to take over to get the job done.
The real, I don't want to say surprising, but encouraging take from this game was the backcourt's debut. Antonio Blakeney looked every bit the five-star he was, shaking off an inauspicious shooting start and carrying LSU's offense during a 27-0 stretch in the game's middle third. He'll be a high-volume shooter. That won't always work out, but more often than not, he appears ready to be this offense's best perimeter option. Blakeney got it started with 22 points and a rugged 10 rebounds, a sign he's unafraid to mix it up inside.
Meanwhile, Baton Rouge native and Madison Prep four-star Brandon Sampson got a bit of a surprise start instead of Jalyn Patterson. He made it count. Sampson isn't known as a long-range shooter, yet he still poured in four three-pointers for his hometown team. That could be a huge asset for this team, merely having Sampson's range on film. Teams will have to respect his shot and it'll open up his ability to slash into the lane with his lanky athleticism. He had 18 points, meaning the trio of freshmen alone accounted for 63% of the team's scoring.
Remember, this team was also playing without Keith Hornsby (injury), Craig Victor (eligibility) and Josh Gray (one-game suspension). They essentially bludgeoned a team into submission for 30 minutes on the back of three admittedly great freshman and a bunch of role players like Brian Bridgewater, Elbert Robinson III and Aaron Epps. The fact they let McNeese off the deck at the end to make the final score close is a little concerning given last year's struggles to put teams away. Still, it was mostly against the reserves by then and the game wasn't in doubt.
Free-throw shooting also left much to be desired, with the Tigers' 50-percent mark keeping the Cowboys close enough for a respectable final. That's been a lingering issue the past couple seasons, so it's worrisome to see it flare up in game one. Given that LSU was 7-9 in games decided by seven points or less last year, free throws could be a crucial pendulum for LSU's success this season.
Overall, this team very much looked the part, even with a limited roster. Other SEC teams like Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri outright lost or played very close games against middling mid-majors. LSU seems above that, given the talent already so apparent on this roster.
It's only one game, but given the performance in Tiger Stadium a night later, LSU fans need something positive to carry it through the winter. Ben Simmons and company displayed enough excellence Friday night to keep optimism through the roof for this squad.