Not much surprises Craig Victor.
Least of all, his team’s status atop the Southeastern Conference.
“That’s where we’re supposed to be,” Victor said. “We had our bumps in the road in the non-conference, but this is where we want to be – if not higher. It’s getting close to March. You want to play your best basketball.”
The Tigers (15-8, 8-2 SEC) will need their best basketball this week, as they face two top 20 teams in the USA Today Coaches Poll: No. 20 South Carolina and No. 13 Texas A&M.
Traveling to the Gamecocks (20-3, 7-3 SEC) on Wednesday (6 p.m., ESPN2) is the first task, and perhaps the toughest. Frank Martin’s team, featuring three seniors and two juniors in its rotation, is undefeated in 12 home games and are coming off a big road win Saturday at Texas A&M. LSU head coach Johnny Jones knows Martin’s men will be no easy foe.
“He has a core of guys now that are upperclassmen with some exceptional talent as freshmen,” Jones said. “Those guys have done a good job of playing together. All of that was on display Saturday in College Station. They all chipped in and did a great job and played extremely well, which gave them an opportunity to knock off Texas A&M.”
LSU, meanwhile, is among the league’s youngest teams, for the second straight year. The Tigers rank 328th nationally in experience – they were 314th in 2014-15 – which accounts for some of the season’s early growing pains.
“We started practice early and were able to go over to Australia with the 10 days of practice and the games we had over there,” said Jones. “That helped a little bit. But that still didn’t give them any birthdays.”
There’s been a few birthdays since, and plenty of wins, thanks to a hike in effort on the glass. In the pre-conference schedule (and the Oklahoma game), LSU averaged just a +2.0 rebounding margin per game. In the 10 league games since, that number more than doubles to +5.3, and they’re the best defensive rebounding team in the league, scooping up 75.0 percent When the Tigers win the war on the boards, they’re 13-2.
“The struggles early, we didn’t play hard, and we used to get outrebounded every game,” said freshman guard Antonio Blakeney, fresh off 31 points and 7 rebounds in Saturday’s 88-77 win over Mississippi State. “Even games we were winning early, we were getting outrebounded. That’s what we’ve been doing lately.”
Doing that against South Carolina will be the biggest challenge of them all. LSU leads the league in defensive rebounding – thanks to an SEC-best 12.9 rebounds per game from Ben Simmons – but Martin’s men rank seventh nationally and first in the league in total rebounding, with 42.0 per game. They’re particularly tough on the offensive glass, grabbing an SEC-best 38.6 percent of available offensive rebounds in league play.
“They’re a physical team,” said Simmons. “It’s going to be a battle.”
“It’s a big time game,” added Keith Hornsby. “It’s a defining game in the SEC.”