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Where do the LSU Tigers fit in the SEC picture?

Ben Simmons’ shoes are a big pair to fill for even the strongest player, so how are the Tigers fairing in his absence?

NCAA Basketball: Houston at Louisiana State Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

In the early stages of their 2016-17 campaign, the LSU Tigers have managed to fashion a record of 5-2 and are coming off an 84-65 victory over the Houston Cougars. This early success isn’t likely to be a harbinger of what’s to come because on December 29, they begin another rigorous SEC schedule by hosting Vanderbilt.

Head coach Johnny Jones is in his fifth season with the Tigers and faces the formidable challenge of trying to compete against the likes of NCAA contenders like Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina. That won’t be easy after the departure of one-and-done Ben Simmons, though the disappointing campaign last year saw LSU end the year at 19-14 and no ticket to the postseason. The Tigers and Wildcats were seen as two of the best SEC teams coming into the season.

Joining Simmons in leaving were players like Keith Hornsby and point guard Tim Quarterman. With that many holes to fill on the roster and coming off a season with no postseason appearance, the Tigers may be in for a long year when it comes to surviving within the SEC.

Jones does have one key asset back in sophomore guard Antonio Blakeney, who was LSU’s go-to when they needed an outside shooter. Blakeney finished his first collegiate season by averaging 12.6 points per game, though he’ll be called upon to ramp up his offensive production if the Tigers hope to have any chance of success.

Blakeney will be the centerpiece of the LSU starting lineup and will be joined in the backcourt by junior Jalyn Patterson, who’s expected to be the Tigers’ top threat from long range. Patterson only averaged 4.7 points last season, but needs to put his three-point prowess to work to make an impact on the court.

The only other veteran that Jones can rely on is junior Craig Victor II, though he may end up being undermanned against more talented SEC teams in the paint.

One wild card in the lineup is forward Duop Reath, who transferred from Lee College. He started strong by winning SEC Player of the Week honors, though that was against weaker competition than he’ll face in the conference. While the former South Sudanese refugee’s off-court story is compelling, that won’t help the Tigers when they travel to places like Lexington and Gainesville.

One freshman to watch will be Skylar Mays, whose 6-4 frame will eventually handle the point guard slot. How well he, fellow freshman Wayde Sims, and transfer Branden Jenkins adapt to SEC play will help determine how well LSU does this season.

In all likelihood, this year appears to be a rebuilding one for the Tigers. That means that taking their lumps this year might end up paying benefits next season.