By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
The going is about to get tough for LSU hoops. Whether the tough in the Tigers gets going remains will be seen shortly.
After an easy-by-all-measurable-standards start the the season, LSU (3-0) heads to the Bahamas as one of eight teams participating in the annual Battle 4 Atlantis.
The name is apt this year — it will be a battle. The field features, in the KenPom.com rankings index, No. 7 Louisville, No. 24 Baylor, No. 29 Michigan State, No. 34 VCU, and LSU’s first-round foe, No. 25 Wichita State.
Tipoff for Wednesday’s opener is 11 am on ESPN2.
Filling out the field are No. 90 St. John’s and No. 108 Old Dominion, both of whom rank just beneath No. 89 LSU.
LSU has made it through its first three contests unscathed, to its credit, but against a schedule that ranks 324th nationally, per KenPom.com. Their toughest foe, North Florida, is ranked No. 215 and played LSU within eight points.
But there are positives to be gleaned from the Tigers’ start. LSU is holding opponents to 66.7 points per game. Foes are shooting just 39.9% FG and and 27.1% 3FG and scoring less than a point per possession, solid numbers for a team in need of defensive improvement from a year ago.
“We are just learning every game and trying to hold the (opponents) to the least amonunt of points we can,” sophomore guard Antonio Blakeney — the team’s leading scorer at 18.7 points per game — said in a release. “We did well in some games in spurts, but we are not where we should be. But we are getting there, and that is what we are trying to show this tournament.”
Wichita State, meanwhile, is 4-0 with four blowout wins. The Shockers hold an average win margin of 37 points per game, but their schedule has actually been easier than LSU’s, ranking No. 332 in the country.
Gone from Gregg Marshall’s crew are familiar faces like Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker. This group is led by sophomore Markis McDuffie, who is producing 11.5 points per game and 127 points per 100 possessions, all off the bench. He joins guard Zach Brown (11.5 PPG, 50% 3FG) as the offensive spearheads of a balanced attack featring 10 players averaging between 5.5 points and 11.5 points per game. It’s no wonder Wichita State leads the country in bench scoring (53.8 points per game).
Marshall’s team, as always, is stout on the boards and defensively. They hold a +15.3 rebounding margin per game, seventh best in the country. They’ve held opponents to averages of 35.1% FG, 26.6% 3FG, and 56.5 points per game.
“We have showed a lot of promise in our first four games,” Marshall said, according to a release. “Now, we get a chance to play some of the finer basketball programs in the country and see how we measure up.”
LSU will likely start the same group it has in its first three games. Skylar Mays and Brandon Sampson will join Blakeney on the perimeter, while Duop Reath and Aaron Epps could team up inside. In three games, that unit has struggled to find a rhythm, outscoring foes by just two points per 100 possessions, according to Open Look Analytics.
Craig Victor, who missed the season’s first three games due to a violation of team rules, should be back in the rotation, while Jalyn Patterson — fresh off a career-high eight assists against North Florida — will boost the perimeter depth. Freshman Wayde Sims, producing an incredible 162.2 points per 100 possession (13th nationally) will get minutes on both the wing and inside. Big man Elbert Robinson had a solid 10 minutes against North Florida, and will hope to provide a similar spark in the Bahamas.
Sims and Patterson, in particular, have been valuable additions to the LSU rotation. When they join Blakeney, Sampson, and Reath, they form a five-some that is outscoring opponents by 95 points per 100 possessions.
LSU will play either Old Dominion or Louisville in the second game. A win vs. Wichita State will put LSU in the 1:30 p.m. CST game on Thanksgiving, while a loss will see the Tigers tip off at 8:30 p.m.
“We are a work in progress and obviously have a long way to go,” said Jones. “But the good thing is the energy and excitement surrounding these guys.”