Say hello to your first-place LSU Tigers.
Just let that sink in. With a month to go in the regular season, this group is in pole position for an SEC championship. The poor non-conference performance, tough road losses at Texas A&M and Florida, some struggles with lesser teams in the PMAC -- it's all in the rearview.
The Tigers seized control of the SEC for now with a thoroughly solid win over the lowly Bulldogs on the same day A&M fell to South Carolina at home. How LSU arrived at the final tally may be an even better sign for this team's stretch run.
LSU fell behind, 22-8, in the opening minutes, as State was hitting everything and LSU struggled to adjust to the zone. It was a flat start, yet totally understandable. The PMAC was dead given it was Mardi Gras weekend and the weather outside certainly was better than watching Mississippi State play basketball.
But the Tigers landed counterpunch after counterpunch, taking an eight-point lead into halftime and never looking back. They opened the lead up to 20+ points and quashed MSU's hopes in a second-half romp. LSU didn't mess around (some final minutes' shenanigans not really counting) and that's the mindset this team needs against the States, the Auburns, the Mizzous of the world, especially when they're at home. Credit where it's due: The Tigers dominated the final 30 minutes on Saturday.
Adding to the good vibes was Antonio Blakeney's day. The five-star recruit has struggled to get going in his freshman season, but the improvement signs have been there of late. He delivered on the promise against the Bulldogs and his friend/fellow 2015 five-star in Malik Newman. Blakeney dropped a career-high 31 points, draining four three-pointers and carrying LSU's offense in the process. When LSU couldn't crack the State zone early, it was Blakeney who produced a pair of treys instantly. He stretched the floor, finished at the rim and made his free throws. For LSU to go a long way this season, he needs to be this kind of scoring threat. Maybe not 31 points per night, but defenses start needing to key on him.
He wasn't alone beyond the arc. Keith Hornsby was his usual consistent self shooting the 3-ball. The senior poured in five treys, dished out a handful of assists and provided 25 points to give a rounded backcourt effort. Hornsby is the most reliable shooter on this team, often when the offense is sputtering, and that's a valuable asset to have come March. Teams can't just pack LSU in on defense right now.
This all underscores a major point about this team. Many want to see Ben Simmons take over more, to be more assertive. It's been the chief criticism of his season. But LSU will be better when Simmons is more facilitator than finisher over the course of several games. Saturday's game was proof enough.
Simmons scored an efficient 16 points but threatened a triple-double with nine rebounds and seven assists. With State keying on him, Simmons and his teammates effectively moved the ball around and kept the offense flowing. Obviously, you're not getting 56 combined points from Blakeney and Hornsby every night, but this game needs to be LSU's blueprint.
They need to solidify and internalize that gameplan in a hurry, because LSU's biggest week of the season is coming up, postseason excepted. The Tigers travel to South Carolina on Wednesday and host the Aggies on Saturday. Both teams are currently a game behind LSU, in the top 40 by KenPom and RPI metrics. The games are a chance to both create distance in the league standings and solidify a NCAA Tournament berth. A 1-1 week or better is a must with games against Florida and Kentucky still on the horizon.
Not to give State too much credit, but the LSU team that showed up after Saturday's sluggish start actually inspires a bit of confidence. This program's fatal flaw has always been not following through in these situations. We'll see if this this team is a legitimate SEC title team soon enough.