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Initial Impressions: LSU 94, SIUE 81

Welcome to the Cam Thomas show

Maryland v LSU Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

It’s comforting to know that even in these crazy, uncertain times that the 2020 calendar year has handed us we can still count on one thing: the LSU basketball team playing a lesser team far closer than necessary.

LSU opened the 2020-2021 season with a 94-81 victory over Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. The Tigers led the Cougars for the entirety of the game, and had a 26-4 advantage to start the game.

It wouldn’t stay that close, however. The Cougars got within two at various points throughout the second half thanks to hot shooting from three—13 makes on 27 attempts—and a Herculean 28-point effort from the bench.

But SIUE had no answer for five-star freshman shooting guard Cam Thomas, who erupted for 27 points in his collegiate debut.

Will Wade called his shot in the offseason about Thomas. Wade said Thomas will be “one of the premier scorers in the country and I’m not just talking about freshmen.” Thursday night Thomas lived up to those expectations, becoming the 15th freshman in program history to go for at least 21 points in their varsity debut.

Thomas wasn’t the only Tiger who impressed. Junior forward Darius Days scored a career-high 24 points and hit four of five three-pointers. Days also grabbed six rebounds and flashed the stretch-forward potential that could elevate LSU from a good team to a great one.

LSU started and closed the game strong. The middle? Well...I have some notes. The Tigers had a 15-point lead to start the second half, but at the under-12 timeout the Cougars had gotten within two points. SIU-E swung the momentum thanks in large part to the efforts of Mike Adewunmi, Cam Wright and Philip Pebble Jr. The trio scored the Cougars’ first 27 points of the second half as SIU outscored LSU 27-16 coming out of halftime.

But LSU never blinked nor surrendered its lead. Days, Thomas and freshman point guard Jalen Cook went on a combined 11-0 run to give LSU an 83-68 lead. SIU and LSU traded small scoring spurts over the final five minutes and LSU walked out of the Chaifetz Arena with a 13-point win.

I don’t want to look too much into the first game of the year, but after Will Wade spent all offseason harping on the need to improve defensively, it’s a tad bit alarming to see the Tiger defense struggle like they did last season. SIU-Edwardsville wasn’t a good team last year, probably won’t be much better this year, and yet the Cougars shot 50 percent from the floor and 48 percent from three. Six Cougar players hit a three, and five of them had multiple makes. I’d feel better if it was just one guy having the game of his life, but when it’s coming from that many different players that may be something that will cost LSU a game—perhaps as early as Saturday.

Despite that, LSU led for the entirety of Thursday’s game and looked like it will, once again, be one of the best offensive teams in the nation. LSU nearly scored 100 points, hit 12 threes, made 22 of 26 free throws and out-rebounded SIU. Nine players saw the floor tonight and eight scored points, including Shaq’s son Shareef O’Neal who hit a corner three to give him the first three points of his LSU career.

There’s a lot of good to take away from LSU, offensively at least, and we haven’t even gotten to Javonte Smart or Trendon Watford. Smart scored 10 points and had five assists to only two turnovers; and all Watford did was flirt with a triple-double: 13 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. Watford was also a force drawing contact, getting to the line 10 times.

LSU will have Friday off and return to the court Saturday to play the Saint Louis University Billikens. The game will be streamed exclusively on ESPN+ and the LSU Sports Radio Network will of course carry the game.