SEC-leading LSU plays first of five February road games Wednesday at Vanderbilt

How has it happened?

How has a team that was 8-4 in its November and December non-conference schedule burn through January unbeaten and is already three games shy of a 20-win season while riding a 10-game win streak?

That’s what the rest of the SEC would like to know as LSU (17-4, 8-0) travels to Vanderbilt (8-13, 0-8) for a Wednesday 8 p.m. tip-off.

From unranked and off-the-radar in December to a No. 18 ranking after running the table in January, LSU is heading into February leading the SEC two games ahead of second place Kentucky and Auburn tied at 6-2.

What kind of magic dust did LSU third-year coach Will Wade sprinkle over the Tigers since the start of the New Year?

There no potions or chants or voodoo involved. While winning a series of close games – six straight victories at one point by a combined 15 points – LSU discovered its identity and players accepted their roles.

The Tigers understand they don’t play pretty basketball. Yes, they move and cut and share the ball on offense. But this LSU team is at its very best when it attacks the basket and gets shots up, whether it’s point guard Javonte Smart herking and jerking to beat a defender off the dribble or shooting guard Skylar Mays’ vicious spin move leaving opponents reaching at air.

When Smart and Mays take the ball to hoop, they create a vacuum that sucks in every LSU offensive rebounder to the basket. Combustible forward Emmitt Williams, high-flying guard Marlon Taylor, sneaky strong forward Trendon Watford and physical forward Darius Days fight like frenzied piranhas for missed shots.

The reason why LSU is averaging an almost-SEC leading 80 points in league games is its rebounding on both ends on the floor and its ability to get to the free throw line.

Almost halfway through its SEC schedule, LSU has a conference-leading plus 12 rebounding margin, 43.3 to 31.3, over opponents. The Tigers are the league’s best offensive rebounding team, collecting 14.5 misses.

Also, LSU is averaging about 16-of-20 free throw shooting in SEC games.

Williams, a 6-6, 230-pound sophomore, is averaging 14 points mainly on the basis that almost three of his 6.9 rebounds per game are offensive boards, not to mention the ones he tips to keep alive.

“I just tell the team to shoot the ball and I try to get it off the glass,” Williams said. “I love it. I just tell them to shoot it and I get the rebound.”

Williams is the best but also one of many examples of Tigers’ accepting their roles as part of the puzzle of teamwork.

Taylor, a 6-6 senior guard who started 24 games last season for LSU’s Sweet 16 SEC regular season championship team, is another reason why the Tigers have successfully managed the league gauntlet so far.

Because of complications from off-season foot surgery, he didn’t begin to receive significant minutes off the bench until two weeks ago.

That’s when new junior guard Charles Manning went down with an ankle injury that has caused him to miss the last five games.

Since then, Taylor is averaging 8.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in 28.6 minutes, shooting 44.4 from 3-point range, 84 percent from the free throw line and serving as LSU’s lockdown defender against the opponents’ best scorer.

“Marlon is playing well because he’s finally gotten into the right routine,” Wade said. “My routine.  Sometimes it’s a battle every day with him.  But he’s learning how to focus better; he’s learning how to have a routine. He’s done that so much better and it’s given him a chance to have success.”

Sophomore Days (11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has blown hot and cold, mostly the victim of foul trouble when things have gone bad. When it has been good, he’s made some excellent putback shots late in games when needed.

Senior guard Mays (15.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and freshman forward Watford (13.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) have given the Tigers steady and clutch play.

Mays hit a game-winning jumper against Mississippi State and Watford converted two three-point plays in the final 30 seconds of a two-point win over Arkansas.

But one of the biggest reasons why the Tigers have held on as the last unbeaten team in SEC play is Smart. The 6-4 sophomore struggled mightily early in the season making the transition to point guard this year from shooting guard where he averaged 11.1 points last season.

In his first six games this season, he averaged 4.2 assists and 5.2 turnovers. In the last 15 games, he’s averaged 4.6 assists and 2 turnovers. He’s extremely effective when he consistently values possessions, rather than firing up 3’s early in the shot clock when LSU is holding second-half leads.

Wade understands his team is heading into the toughest part of the schedule, with the next five of seven games on the road.

“As you move further and further along here, the margin for error is thinner and thinner, smaller and smaller,” Wade said. “You’ve got to be pressing your advantage, you got to make sure you’re handling your business and doing everything in your power to give your team and give yourself the best chance to perform well.’”

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Ron Higgins

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