Somehow, someway, a team that had one of the least impressive non-conference records among SEC teams through November and December finds itself in sole possession of first place in league play.
But how long LSU, winners of its first four SEC games, can stay there is another matter.
The 12-4 Tigers play at Ole Miss (9-7, 0-3 in the SEC) 7 p.m. Saturday night in The Pavilion in a game telecast on ESPN2. The Rebels are one of two SEC teams that haven’t won a conference game, so LSU coach Will Wade is expecting the home team to play with desperation.
“They’re not an 0-3 team in the sense that they’re a very good, disciplined team and coach (Kermit) Davis is a good coach,” Wade said. “We’ll get their best shot. We’ve just got to make sure we give them our best shot.”
The Tigers, winners of their last three SEC games by a combined seven points and owners of an 11-game SEC road winning streak that’s the third longest in school history, have some unexpected problems of their own.
LSU’s bench suffered a major blow when sixth man Charles Manning Jr. underwent surgery Thursday after breaking his right foot in the Tigers’ 89-85 overtime win at Texas A&M Wednesday night.
Manning, a 6-5 guard who has proven to be one of LSU’s best 3-point shooters and perimeter defenders, fractured the fifth metatarsal and will be sidelined for a month.
Late in the first half against A&M after he assisted Darius Days on a basket, Manning was retreating on defense when he dropped to the floor in front of the LSU bench.
Without Manning, the Tigers lose 8 points and 3.1 rebounds. His 17 blocked shots are second on the team, just six behind leader Emmitt Williams.
Even with Marlon Taylor, a starter last year who has been slow to recover from off-season foot surgery and not playing like his old self, Wade is not panicking.
“We felt like the seven or eight guys we were playing gave us the best chance,” Wade said. “Now with Charles out, we’re going to have to recalibrate that. We’re going to use everybody we got, it’s next man up.
“I know it sounds cliché, but we’ve got other guys that when given opportunities are going to step up and do a nice job. That’s what we expect.”
It means that Wade not only hopes Taylor will contribute, but he’s looking to senior walk-on guard Marshall Graves, freshman guards James Bishop and Aundre Hyatt as well as redshirt sophomore forward Courtese Cooper.
“We need Marlon to play a lot better than he’s been playing,” Wade said. “We know what we’re going to get with Marshall, very, very solid. Bishop is somebody that can come in and help, he’s done that at certain times this year. Aundre Hyatt has given us really, really good minutes. We’re going to continue to play Coop. He’s getting better and better and better.”
Without Manning, it will put a premium on LSU’s starting lineup to raise its game.
Sophomore point guard Javonte Smart and senior shooting guard Skylar Mays must continue their mostly steady play.
After having a combined 25 assists and 26 turnovers in his first six games, Smart (11.2 ppg, 4.7 apg) has had 50 assists and 15 turnovers in his last 10 games.
Mays (16 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who has started 53 consecutive games, is third in the SEC in steals, fourth in free throw percentage (85.9) and eighth in field goal percentage (49.4).
“Those two are great players and are our bell cows, our guards, and we have to live with them,” Wade said. “My whole thing is that they have to just put the thing on the rim and give us a chance on the offensive glass.”
Thanks to 6-6 sophomores Days and Emmitt Williams and 6-9 freshman Trendon Watford, LSU’s best shot often at winning has been second-chance points.
Aside from a road game next Saturday at Texas, LSU’s next three SEC games are at home following the trip to Ole Miss.
The Tigers return Tuesday to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for a SEC Network/ 6 p.m. game against Florida. LSU will then host Alabama on Jan. 29 at 6 p.m., and Ole Miss at 11 a.m. on Feb. 1 as LSU honors the 50th anniversary of “Pistol” Pete Maravich breaking the NCAA career scoring record.