Stop me if you've heard this before:
The LSU basketball team has a hugely important stretch coming up. Yeah, it seems like we've been saying this about every week in the SEC since last January, but that's because the Tigers insist on giving themselves no breathing room.
That continued with a frustrating loss at Mississippi State over the weekend. No time to dwell, though, since tonight's contest begins a stretch of three games in five days, all at home and in progressing order of difficulty. Not only will LSU's consistency be tested but their depth will also be under a microscope with Alabama and Kentucky coming to town on Saturday and Tuesday.
It starts with Auburn, and it's definitely a necessary game for LSU. This team has had a curious problem, winning at Ole Miss and Florida and taking down Georgia but losing at Missouri and Ole Miss (and going back further, a thoroughly uninspiring Clemson team). LSU is not above playing down to a bad team, and there's no mistaking the Plainsmen as anything but one.
Yes, they're a Bruce Pearl squad so they can get pretty feisty and will absolutely play with max effort. Still, the other Tigers' only two league wins are against Missouri and South Carolina (a combined 3-15 in conference action) and they enter the PMAC on a four-game losing skid. There's a good reason LSU is favored by double digits here.
That doesn't mean Auburn is totally lacking playmakers. Senior guard KT Harrell leads the SEC in scoring halfway through league play, with three 20-point outings along the way. Harrell's shooting numbers are up from last year, and he's a viable threat to get hot beyond the arc. Beware here, LSU...
Down low, LSU has a pretty hefty size advantage, with one notable exception. Cinmeon Bowers is an absolute animal on the glass, joining Jordan Mickey as the only SEC players averaging double doubles. The junior forward is grabbing a whopping 11 rebounds per game, complementing his 13.5 points a night which he mostly gets off an array of putbacks, dunks and pick-and-rolls. He won't hurt LSU outside the lane, so the best bet is to clog the paint and dare anybody but Harrell to beat you.
Offensively, this is a desperately needed get-right game after last week's brutal effort. Expect Auburn to zone LSU just like South Carolina and Mississippi State did, so the shooters better be ready after a putrid 9-for-37 (24.3%) week from 3-point range. Tim Quarterman, in particular, is coming off a 1-for-11 two-game run from deep, and he needs to get back to his strength, which is driving the lane, finishing around the rim or making something happen through sheer will. Jarell Martin could also use a kickstart following his foul-plagued 4-point outing in Starkville.
Not a bad foe to be facing on that front, since Auburn is 215th in the country in points allowed, surrendering 70+ points to five of eight SEC opponents so far. Don't doubt their intensity, they just don't have the horses yet under Pearl, with a similarly thin lineup.
Which makes this a game LSU needs to use as a confidence builder, a reassurance to itself and an ever-disgruntled fanbase. The home Tigers have far more talent than the visiting Tigers, the home court advantage, five days of rest, Jalyn Patterson back after missing two games with a reported concussion and a tangible reason to be firing on all cylinders in the near future.
Oh yeah, now would be a good time for a blowout, since the whole three games in five days thing isn't ideal for LSU. We'll see if they can earn some rest.