January is in the books, and LSU went a perfect 7-0 in the month for the first time since 1981.
Now the Tigers (17-3, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) march into its long-awaited and daunting February schedule with a full head of steam as one of just two unbeaten teams in league play.
Over the next four weeks, LSU will take on No. 22 Mississippi State, No. 7 Kentucky, an underachieving yet dangerous Auburn squad and, of course, No. 1 Tennessee in a game that has already sold out the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
But before any of those marquee matchups can take place, LSU must first face off against a familiar foe in Arkansas in a rematch of an overtime thriller that took place in Bud Walton Arena.
LSU will host the Razorbacks (12-8, 3-4) on Saturday at 5 p.m. in the PMAC less than a month after Arkansas took the Tigers to overtime behind a 32-point, 7-rebound performance from sophomore forward and projected NBA Draft Lottery pick Daniel Gafford.
“Gafford killed us,” said LSU head coach Will Wade. “(Mason) Jones played really well in the first game against us. He’s been scoring at a high level. Isaiah Joe is a big time shooter. The point guard (Jalen) Harris is good as well. We’ve got to do a good job corralling Harris, staying out on the shooter. We’ve got to do a good job of not giving Gafford angles. We’ve got to do a much better job with our post defense than we did in the first game.”
The Tigers tried to go one-on-one on Gafford which nearly backfired as he shot 14 for 19 and ultimately pushed LSU to overtime, but the Tigers pulled through and avoided an early loss in SEC play that may have changed the course of LSU’s season thus far.
One reason for that was the performance of freshman phenom Naz Reid, who posted 27 points on 10 for 12 shooting including 4 for 4 from the 3-point line in addition to a team-high 7 rebounds.
Reid has struggled offensively in his last two outings, but he continues to be one of the Tigers’ most valuable pieces on defense and Wade said he’s not too concerned with his development thus far.
“I just watched some film with him one on one and I think he is going to be just fine,” Wade said. “Last night he was in a slump and he has an open three on the left wing. Two or three weeks ago, he would have probably shot that to shoot himself out of the slump. He shot fakes, drives and goes to the rim to try and dunk. He gets fouled, goes to the line and makes two free throws. That gets him going. He is getting better and he is going to be just fine.”
The game will mark LSU’s first rematch this season, a fact that Wade said involves some extra preparation and interesting chess moves heading into Saturday.
“They have more film and we have film going against each other,” Wade said. “What worked the first time will not work the second time. We have to make some changes and anticipate some changes they will make. Arkansas is one of those teams that will play differently on the road than at home.”
Wade added he expects the Razorbacks to throw more matchup zone at the Tigers, and that Arkansas doesn’t tend to press on the road as much as it does in Bud Walton Arena.
“but maybe they will because they turned us over a lot when they made the run in the second half. This is the first time we have a game against a team we have played twice. We have to take lessons from the first game and from the Texas A&M game.”
Waters enters the game as one of the SEC’s top performers and fresh off a 36-point performance against Texas A&M in LSU’s 72-57 victory in College Station.
Since the start of SEC play, Tremont Waters is averaging 20.4 points (second in SEC), 6.7 assist (first in SEC) and 2.6 steals (second in SEC) per game.
“It is just learning how to play with the group of guys,” Wade said. “I was really proud of him defensively last night. He picked up Starks in the full court and set the tone for our defense. When you have your point guard out there and locked in guarding somebody, those other guys are ready to go. Obviously, he made some shots. I think he is just more mature. He has seen just about every read he can see and he is making plays.”