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Preview/GameThread: LSU at Vanderbilt (ESPN2, 8pm)

The Tigers start SEC play with one of the league's hardest road trips. Will this challenge make the Tigers, or keep breaking them?

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

It's a whole new season for the LSU basketball team, or at least that's the party line.

Make no mistake though, the Tigers' SEC slate will be colored throughout by a brutal non-conference slate, which LSU wrapped up at a dismal 7-5 against a middling group of opponents.

There's so much work to be done with this team, both on the floor and from a resume standpoint. It's hard to expect something as arbitrary as a calendar year or the start of conference play will magically fix this team's problems. They've run that deep so far.

But there is something to be said for playing to the competition, a hallmark of Johnny Jones' teams at LSU for better or worse. In this case, it might be exactly what the Tigers need. The team even had a time-honored team meeting after the Wake Forest loss. Apparently, there was some clearing of the air. Chemistry didn't seem to be a problem for this team, but they certainly have yet to gel fully.

And there's also the little matter of health. If Brandon Sampson returns, LSU would really be playing with its top eight or nine in the rotation for the first time this season. Craig Victor is only playing his fifth game since becoming eligible after the fall semester. Jalyn Patterson returned against the Demon Deacons after missing four games. Keith Hornsby was out for the first seven games. Sampson missed the Wake loss.

Playing with a full complement — Brian Bridgewater's absence means almost nothing — would be a boost, though far from a cure-all. LSU will take what it can get here. Memorial Gym is a notoriously difficult place to play with the benches beneath the basket, and Vandy has a strong case as the best team LSU has faced to this point.

The Commodores are a mere 8-4, yet don't have a plethora of good wins. Unlike the Tigers, their losses are more than respectable. Vanderbilt pushed Kansas in the Maui Invitational title, dropped a last-second decision to Baylor in Waco, fell to a 13-1 Purdue team on the road and couldn't win a toss-up game against a very strong Dayton team. They beat the same Wake Forest team that edged LSU in the PMAC four days ago by 22 on a neutral floor.

They're also a matchup problem for LSU in many ways, Ben Simmons' comments notwithstanding. The Dores are missing 7-footer Luke Kornet, but they will space the hell out of you with a deep and talented backcourt. That Tiger perimeter defense that's resembled a matador this season? Those guards will have their hands full with Wade Baldwin, Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis, all sophomores who can heat up beyond the arc at any time.

Baldwin is among the most complete players in the SEC, LaChance is a sharpshooter and Fisher-Davis' size on the wing makes him a mismatch. They also do as good of a job defending the 3 as they do shooting it. The Commodores are the best in the SEC in 3-point defense. Contract that with LSU, which is shooting a paltry 31 percent from deep this season. LSU may need to finally get big games from Tim Quarterman and Antonio Blakeney following their respective shooting lulls in December.

The glass will also be critical here, as Baton Rouge area native Damian Jones is Vandy's enforcer there. He's already recorded nine double-doubles this season, a foreboding sign for a Tiger bunch that has been routinely outworked rebounding the ball. Simmons and Victor will need to go to work. The guards must help out on the long rebounds if Vandy is misfiring from range.

LSU doesn't necessarily have to win this game but the margin for error is dwindling. Losing at Vandy won't necessarily shrink it but scoring a win here would have season-changing ramifications, especially considering the critical January slate ahead.

With Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Georgia and Oklahoma awaiting LSU in the next four weeks, the Tigers can't wait any longer to finally look the part of a contender.