Tigers step out of conference one last time Saturday at Texas

Photo by Jonathan Mailhes

Whoever put the matchups together for the seventh annual Big 12/SEC Challenge obviously knows storylines.

They’ve matched coaching pupil Will Wade vs. coaching teacher Shaka Smart with Wade’s Tigers traveling to Smart’s Longhorns for a Saturday 1 p.m. game set for ESPN.

LSU heads to Austin with a record of 14-4, winners of seven straight games sitting atop the SEC after edging Florida 84-82 on Tuesday. Texas is 12-6 and 2-4 in the Big 12 with a two-game losing streak coming off a 38-point loss at West Virginia on Monday.

Saturday’s game is the last of the Tigers’ 13-game non-conference schedule. LSU is 8-4 in non-conference games, including three two-point losses.

“In our non-conference we haven’t played as well as we needed to,” Wade said. “We don’t really have much to hang our hat on away from home. This is a great opportunity for us to get a big win, a quad one win away from home and tack that on to our NCAA Tournament resume’. There’s a lot going on for us in this game.”

Such as Wade facing Smart, the coach who gave Wade the biggest break of his coaching career.

Smart was head coach at Virginia Commonwealth when he hired Harvard assistant Wade as a VCU assistant for the 2009-10 season. Wade stayed four seasons, left to become Chattanooga’s head coach for two years and returned to VCU as head coach to replace Smart in 2015-16 when took the Texas job.

“I certainly wouldn’t be a head coach as fast as I was if it wasn’t for Shaka,” Wade said. “We’ve known each other for a long time. We were at Clemson together for a year, and we were able to reunite when he got the head coaching job at VCU.

“He had a lot of success at VCU (a Final Four berth in 2011) and a lot of us assistants were able to kind of ride those coattails and parlay that into some head coaching jobs for ourselves.”

As far as he and Smart still running similar offenses, Wade said that may happen at times in Saturday’s game.

“He’s changed up his offense a little bit,” Wade said. “But he’ll know just about every play call we call out. We have new stuff that he hasn’t seen, it’s not like we haven’t added some stuff from when I was with him. But he’s watching film, there won’t be many secrets.”

Smart can take one look at LSU’s film and know the Tigers’ strength is aggressively taking the ball to the basket and pounding the offensive boards.

LSU doesn’t play “pretty” offensive basketball. It’s about driving, drawing contact, getting to the free throw line or scoring second-chance points.

The Tigers have won most of their games that way, especially in the final five minutes.

“Coach (Wade) tells us you can’t foul, stay solid on defense and make free throws so we can come out with the win,” said LSU point guard Javonte Smart, whose improved playmaking (5 assists to 1.9 turnovers in the last 12 games) and steady scoring (11.7 ppg) have been pluses for the Tigers in their 6-0 start in SEC play.

Also, with top reserve Charles Manning Jr. out with an injury for at least two weeks, senior guard Marlon Taylor has returned to the high-flying form he showed last year as a starter for the Tigers’ Sweet 16 SEC regular season championship team.

Taylor had been slow recovering from off-season foot surgery. But in LSU’s last two games in wins over Ole Miss and Florida, Taylor averaged 11.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 30 minutes per game.

“Marlon has been awesome, he’s kind of finding his footing,” LSU guard Skylar Mays said. “It has kind of been bumpy for him because he has been out so long. But credit him for continuing to work and having the right mindset. Now, things are turning for him, so we are hoping he can keep that up.”

LSU is 1-2 in the Big/12 SEC Challenge. The Tigers won at No. 16 West Virginia 74-73 in 2014-15, lost at home to No. 1 Oklahoma 77-75 in 2015-16 and lost at Texas Tech 77-64 in 2016-17.

Texas is 3-3 in the Big12/SEC Challenge with home wins over Ole Miss and over Vanderbilt twice, and road losses at Kentucky and at Georgia twice.

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Ron Higgins

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