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What to Watch for: LSU vs. Auburn

Conference play begins on The Plains

NCAA Basketball: Yale at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Conference play has finally arrived which means the real season begins for the LSU men’s basketball team (12-0) and boy will these next few games be a gauntlet.

LSU’s next seven opponents are against five ranked teams while the other two (Florida and Arkansas) were ranked earlier this season. All seven opponents will likely be dancing come March. If you’ve looked at LSU’s record and said “yeah but who have they played?” well, here you go.

Auburn is by far LSU’s biggest challenge this season. They’ve got some serious skins on the wall with two “A Wins” (beating a KenPom top-50 team adjusted for location) in Loyola Chicago and Saint Louis and two B Wins (same concept but for KenPom top-100 teams) against Syracuse and Yale. LSU. by comparison, hasn’t played what KenPom considers an A Team but is 5-0 against B Teams.

I’ve been saying for a few weeks now we’re going to find out just how good LSU really is starting on December 29. Let’s see if they can rise to the occasion.

Welcome to The Jungle

Will Wade’s Tigers have successfully won in 11 of the 13 opposing buildings across the SEC. Auburn is one of the two venues he has yet to win at.

Wednesday will make for a heck of a first ever victory as Auburn Arena aka The Jungle is expected to be a madhouse. Tickets for Wednesday’s game are in the $200 range and that’s just standing room only.

Lottery Tickets

The matchup of the night will be Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. going up against Tari Eason. Smith, a 6’10” freshman phenom has been turning heads and making a case to go first overall this upcoming June while Tari Eason’s finally getting recognized as a potential future pro and I recently saw on tankathon.com he’s being mocked as high as No. 16 overall.

Will Wade is, to put it mildly, a fan of Smith’s game.

“From what I’ve seen in college basketball, I haven’t seen better. He’s going to be the top pick in the draft from what I’ve looked at.”

Being 6’10” and being able to knock down 45 percent of your threes tends to lead to that kind of adulation. Smith has the size to punish people inside—averaging seven boards a game—but can step out from behind the line and make teams pay for not extending.

In come Tari Eason. Eason missed LSU’s last game with back spasms but is expected to play Wednesday night. He’s been a big reason why LSU’s defense has been the best in college basketball and top-10 in opposing three-point percentage (25.9), block rate (18.4%), and steal rate (17.6%). If Eason can slow down in any kind of way Jabari Smith Jr., expect to see him emerge as a lottery pick.

Great Value

The biggest gripe I’ve had with LSU this season is how sloppy they can be with the ball. To date, LSU’s turnover rate is 19% which ranks 174th nationally. Valuing the ball is something Will Wade has been preaching over the past week.

“To give ourselves an opportunity, we’re going to have to value the ball,” Wade said. “We can’t go in there and cough the ball up a ton.”

Auburn doesn’t force steals like LSU does, but the Tigers are second in all of division one at non-steal turnovers. LSU is going to be walking into a raucous environment and luckily they have a senior ball handler in Xavier Pinson. He’ll need to have the steadiest of hands Wednesday night.

Threes Company

The three ball hasn’t been especially kind to LSU as the Tigers rank outside the top-200 in three point percentage. That largely coincides with Darius Days eight-game slump.

It’s been four years so we know the routine by this point: if Darius Days’s shot is falling, LSU hits a new level. If it’s not the Tigers are more vulnerable. If LSU is going to beat Auburn, they’ll need to make sure Darius Days packed his three point shooting.