The LSU basketball team will play its first true road game Wednesday night at 8 p.m. when it takes on No. 24 Houston in the Fertitta Center in a game that will air on ESPN2.
The game marks the start of an important three-game stretch over the next nine days in which the Tigers (7-2) will face two teams currently holding spots in the Associated Press Top 25 book-ending a Las Vegas showdown against St. Mary’s, an NCAA Tournament staple.
The Cougars (8-0) finally breached into the Top 25 after opening the season with eight consecutive wins, including successful bouts against Oregon and, most recently, a familiar opponent to LSU in Oklahoma State.
They’re led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, a decorated head coach with plenty of experience at both the NCAA and the NBA level now in his fifth year with the program.
Sampson coaches a physical style of basketball, and it shows up in the rebounding category where Houston averages 40.4 rebounds per game and a +7 rebounding margin so far this season.
“We’ll learn if we can compete in a high-pressure, high-stakes game,” said LSU head coach Will Wade. “It’s going to be a bloodbath. You could call a foul every possession. They’re as physical a team as we’ll play all season long.”
LSU really struggled playing in hostile environments in Wade’s first year coaching the program.
The Tigers went an abysmal 3-8 in away games last season, losing seven consecutive road games to close out the season.
The last time LSU won a game in an opponents home gym was on Jan. 10 against Arkansas, a game the Tigers won 75-54.
“It’s just hard to play on the road,” said LSU junior guard Skylar Mays. “You don’t get energy from the crowd. You have to build energy for yourself. Maybe we could have done a better job in that aspect.”
Despite being without one of its top players in UMass-transfer and New Orleans-product DeJon Jarreau for all but one game due to a finger injury and a suspension for an undisclosed team rules violation, the Cougars have had little trouble in the nonconference part of their schedule.
Guards Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis have picked up most of the slack left by Jarreau’s absence with 16.5 points per game apiece, with Brooks adding a team-high 6.9 rebounds per game.
Their rebounds from all over the place, with no player getting regular minutes averaging fewer than three rebounds per game.
“It’s going to be a huge test on the backboard,” Wade said. “It’s going to be a huge test of our toughness. It’s going to be a huge test of our 3-point defense, which isn’t very good. … Our transition defense is going to get tested.
“Everything is going to get tested. Can we counter punch when they counter punch, can we settle into a game. All that stuff is going to be extremely important. It will be a game on the road against a Top 25 ball club. Those are never easy.”
LSU will enter its first true road environment with a size advantage at most positions, but that hasn’t kept them from struggling against teams in the past.
The Tigers will have to find a way to win the rebounding battle as well as defend the perimeter in order to get out of Houston with a win to start off this crucial stretch.
While Emmitt Williams enters the game questionable due to a busted lip that needed stitches, the Tiger still have three solid post option in the versatile Naz Reid, the towering Kavell Bigby-Williams and the natural scorer Darius Days.
Reid has begun to look more like himself since suffering an ankle injury a few weeks back. He said he’s not quite “110 percent” yet, but he’s beginning to feel more comfortable playing on it, which has led to better performances as of late.
Despite running into some foul trouble in the first half Sunday against Incarnate Word, Reid put together a balanced performance, shooting 7 for 8 from the field for 16 points with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
“It feels like I’m getting back into a rhythm,” Reid said. “But I couldn’t do it without my teammates.”
Reid wasn’t the only one who ran into foul trouble. LSU had four players with two or more fouls just 15 minutes into the game before Wade starting working the officials which led to more calls going the Tigers’ way.
But the Tigers can’t afford to do that against the Cougars as they’ll be better equipped to take advantage when LSU is forced to resort to its bench.
“We’re going to have to come at it with a business-like approach,” Mays said. “We have to do what it takes to win. (Wade) is going to give us a great game plan, and we’re going to have to play our hearts out.”