Unlike football, the SEC is allowing its members to play non-conference basketball games in the midst of the now 8½-month COVID-19 pandemic.
LSU’s struggling football team could have used this season what the LSU basketball team received in its 2020-21 season home opener, an overwhelmed non-conference opponent to work out deficiencies and build confidence.
In a game Tigers’ coach Will Wade scheduled just a week ago, LSU hammered Southeastern Louisiana 96-43 Monday night before a socially-distanced crowd of 2,008 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Ironing out some rough spots such as poor defensive rotation, virtually no offensive rebounding and very little bench contributions the Tigers (2-1) experienced in its two season-opening games in St. Louis last Thursday, LSU seemed to take positive steps in each of those areas.
Southeastern shot just 22 percent from the field and LSU’s bench scored 26 points thanks to a huge boost from freshman forward Mwani Wilkerson, who scored 12 points and collected 5 of the Tigers’ 13 offensive rebounds.
“I thought we sustained our defense better,” Wade said. “Pleased with our focus, we sustained our effort for 40 minutes. Everybody who came in gave us some good contributions.”
Including Wilkerson, the Tigers placed five players in double figures led by sophomore forward Trendon Watford and freshman guard Cam Thomas.
Watford had a well-rounded 20 points, hitting 7 of 8 field goals including 2 of 3s, a newfound weapon for someone who made just 26.9 percent of his 3s last year.
“I’ve been working on getting up 200 makes in the morning and getting shots up after practice,” Watford said. “One of big things coming back for year two was focusing in on that. It’s good to see the hard work has paid off. I just have to keep improving.”
Thomas, who was named the SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday after averaging 26 points in the Tigers’ first two games, scored 20 or more for the third straight game with 21 points fueled four 3-pointers and 9 of 10 free throws.
“I feel like I have to score for us to compete, so I’ll do whatever to score the ball,” said Thomas, who’s averaging 24.3 points in 29.7 minutes per game, shooting 49 percent from the field, 44.4 in 3-pointers and 86.7 percent from the free throw line. “The guys know if I’m off a little bit, they’ll get me a few more shots so I can get in rhythm. Because when I’m in rhythm, it helps everybody out. It helps Trendon and JaVonte (Smart) to get to the basket and it frees us some shots for Darius Days.”
Juniors Smart and Days provided solid performances. Point guard Smart had a steady 10 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists while forward Days added 11 points and 7 rebounds.
LSU first-half scoring runs of 18-2 in the game’s first 10:22 and 19-3 in the last 4:07 of the first half gave the Tigers a 50-18 halftime lead.
At that point, it became a matter if LSU stayed sharp in its execution or if it allowed its focus to wander as the Tigers eventually used 10 players.
LSU stayed to its task, building a 54-point lead in the game’s last 2:30. The Tigers’ bench stayed on point, much to the delight of Wade who pointed out the play of reserves such as Wilkinson, freshman guard Eric Gaines, freshman center Josh Gray and redshirt sophomore Shareef O’Neal.
The 6-9 O’Neal, playing his first game in the arena where his father Shaquille dominated as an All-American center for the Tigers from 1989 to 1992, tied Watford for the team rebounding lead with 9 and also scored 5 points.
“Shareef is a rebounding machine,” Wade said of O’Neal, who’s averaging 5.7 rebounds in 15 minutes per game. “He can really help us rebounding the ball big time.”
Southeastern (0-3) was led by guards Keon Clergeot and Joe Kasperzyk, who scored 17 and 13 points respectively.
LSU next plays on Sunday at 5 p.m. in the PMAC vs. Louisiana Tech.