There are times this basketball season when LSU is magic in everything it does and looks like a team that with advantageous matchups could advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
Beautiful ball-movement, sure offensive decision-making, relentless rebounding, flawless defensive rotations, sneaky fast hands, just a model of efficiency and execution.
There are also occasions when the Tigers have such a high level of confusion and a low dose of intelligence they appear to be a one-and-done NIT team.
Inadvisable shots lofted way early during the 30-second shot clock, turnovers galore on impossible passes thrown to no one, fouls committed 35 feet from the basket, a myriad of mistakes from a disoriented, unfocused band of free-wheeling ballers.
The crazy thing is LSU head coach Will Wade can see both the sane and the loco Tigers in one half. Sometimes, they have been able to survive and win but it hasn’t happened against the best teams on their schedule.
If LSU wants to bolster its resume to earn an NCAA tournament bid, four of its next five opponents have NCAA net rankings in the top 30 (LSU is No. 33) including No. 13 Texas Tech which visits the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The game is part of the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge that matches teams from the two conferences. In LSU’s case, getting paired with Texas Tech just two years after it lost in the NCAA championship game to Virginia in overtime, gives the Tigers a chance to hook a big fish.
“We squandered some opportunities, I don’t think there’s any secret about that,” Wade said. “At some point, you’ve gotta start taking advantage of that and it’d be a great time Saturday. We’re playing a tremendous team and it’s a really good opportunity for our guys.”
The game within the game between the 11-4 Tigers and the 11-5 Raiders is Texas Tech junior Mac McClung vs. LSU freshman Cam Thomas, two of college basketball’s elite shooting guards who both starred in high school in Virginia.
After averaging 15.7 points and 13.7 points in his first two years at Georgetown, the 6-2 McClung transferred to Texas Tech this season. He’s averaging a team-high 17.2 points (second in the Big 12) and is shooting 44.2 percent from the field, 81.4 percent in free throws and 34.9 percent in 3-pointers.
“He’s a three level-scorer, he shoots it very well,” Wade said. “He’s an efficient mid-range player who is elite in getting to the rim in transition. His efficiency is buoyed by how often he gets to the free throw line because he’s a good free throw shooter. He’s got a good spirit about him, he’s not afraid of the big moment.”
The way Wade described McClung is the same things he has said from day one about the 6-4 Thomas.
He leads the SEC in scoring averaging 22.1 points per game and is shooting 40.3 percent from the field, 89.2 percent in free throws and just 28 percent in 3-pointers as he’s in a current 9-for-51 shooting slump from deep in his last seven games.
The difference in McClung and Thomas is Thomas has the green light to shoot anytime he feels he can get off a shot. McClung, who doesn’t have the same hall pass, has played one more game than Thomas yet has attempted 49 fewer field goals, 35 fewer 3’s and 25 fewer free throws.
Asked if LSU will guard McClung the same way the Tigers guard Thomas in practice, Wade said with a laugh, “We don’t guard much of anybody, haven’t you watched us?”
LSU offensive firepower, with four of five starters combining to score 77.7 percent of the Tigers’ 83.7 points per game, does its best to offset the team’s defensive deficiencies and inconsistent rebounding.
“”Some of it’s communication and some of it’s having better defensive discipline,” Wade said. “Texas Tech is a great offensive rebounding team, so being able to hold them to one shot would really help our defense.”
Texas Tech is 15th nationally in scoring defense 61.7 points per game. The Red Raiders have held 12 of 16 opponents under 70 points, but fifth-year coach Chris Beard believes LSU will provide one of his team’s stiffest tests of the season.
“They have the looks of a second week NCAA tournament team that could go deep,” Beard said of the Tigers. “They have NBA players on their roster and it appears they have pretty good chemistry and they understand their roles.”