It might be a new basketball season, but LSU coach Will Wade hasn’t forgotten that the only team to beat the Tigers twice last year when they won the SEC regular season championship is coming to town Tuesday.
Florida, with a regular season overtime win last year in Baton Rouge and a last-second victory in the conference tournament, takes on the SEC-leading Tigers in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at 6 p.m. on the SEC Network.
While LSU (13-4 overall, 5-0 SEC) currently has a six-game win streak that’s the longest in the league, the Tigers remain unranked after winning their last four conference games by a combined 11 points. They are coming off their 12th straight SEC road win, an 80-76 victory at Ole Miss on Saturday.
“We’re stepping up in weight class playing Florida,” said Wade of the unranked Gators, who are 12-5 overall and 4-1 in the SEC after steamrolling then-No. 4 nationally ranked Auburn 69-47 Saturday. “They’re playing extremely well coming off one of their better outings. They were preseason Top 10 in the country for a reason.”
Florida, with a playing rotation that includes five freshmen, three sophomores and Virginia Tech graduate transfer forward Kerry Blackshear Jr., went 8-4 in non-conference play.
Like LSU, 9-4 in non-conference games, Florida has been a work in progress.
“I think that our ball security has gotten better,” said Florida coach Mike White, a former New Orleans Jesuit High star who’s 5-2 against LSU in his first three seasons leading the Gators. “Our shot selection has gotten better, (so has) our movement of the basketball. We’ve gotten better on the offensive glass.”
In SEC games this season, LSU and Florida mirror each other in several statistical categories.
One of the Tigers’ biggest strengths, offense rebounding leading to second-chance points, will be severely tested.
The Gators’ front line has a decided height advantage with 6-10 forwards Blackshear Jr. (14.8 pgg, 8.9 rpg) and Omar Payne (5.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg), and 6-5 wingman Keyonte Johnson (12.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg).
LSU counters with 6-6 forwards Darius Days (11.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Emmitt Williams (13.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg), and 6-9 forward Trendon Watford (12.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg).
One of the biggest keys for the Tigers, besides holding their own on the boards, will be the backcourt matchup of LSU’s Javonte Smart (11.7 ppg, 3.2 apg) and Florida’s Andrew Nembhard (10.8 ppg, 5.9 apg).
Last season, Smart outscored Nembhard 15-5 in LSU’s 79-78 overtime win in Gainesville. But in the SEC tournament, Nembhard had a 20-13 scoring advantage over Smart, and hit the game-winning 3-pointer with one second left for a 76-73 Florida victory.
After going a combined 8-for-25 from the field including 0-of-9 in 3-pointers in home wins over Arkansas and Mississippi State, Smart has averaged 19 points the last two games in road wins at Texas A&M and Ole Miss when he hit 14-of-27 field goals including 8-of-18 3s.
As good as Smart was at times in the Ole Miss victory, his technical foul for screaming in the face of a Rebels’ defender after swishing a 3-pointer with 5:31 left could have cost LSU the win. Ole Miss made both technical free throws for a 69-66 lead.
“We have to cut that out and let our play do the talking,” Wade said. “He (Smart) is an emotional player; I tell him all of the time that I’d rather tell him `whoa’ than `go.’ I’d rather reel him back in than have to stir him and give him a little pop.
“That’s one thing I love about Javonte and the one thing I love about the rest of those guys. They are emotional, they’re into it, and they want to win.”