With his impressive credentials from his tenures at Nevada and Stanford, LSU fans were very hopeful that Coach Trent Johnson could lead a more consistent team in Baton Rouge than feast-or-famine John Brady. However, after a strong first season that ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, things got difficult for Johnson, whose team was one of the worst in the SEC for the past two years, over which it won only five conference games.
Things didn't look like they'd get much better early this year. The Tigers came out of the gate with ugly losses to the likes of Coastal Carolina and South Alabama. (Go Jags!) However, Johnson's squad quickly turned its season around, winning a stretch of OOC matchups highlighted by a win over then-10th-ranked Marquette. The SEC slate has been a mixed bag for the Tigers, who have won several conference games but have failed to position themselves for an SEC West Title. That said, this is clearly not the LSU of the past two years. This is a competitive, solid club; with an RPI of 61, LSU is, in fact, on the margins of the bubble picture, although it probably needs to have a very strong finish to have a fighting chance at an at-large bid.
For the Gamecocks, this game should provide a solid test of whether we're ready to move from being a bad team to one that's solidly competitive. As I stated in my wrap-up, after the Georgia game I felt that we largely won due a combination of scrappy defense and poor offense on the part of the Dawgs. Many of the glaring weaknesses still remained: poor shot selection, too many 3FGA, poor ball-handling (UGA won the TO battle), etc. We managed to upend a questionable opponent in an ugly game--nice to win, to be sure, but maybe not a sign of progress.
Today, we need a better performance. LSU isn't a great team, mind you. Moreover, their defensive, slow-and-deliberate style may play into our hands, as we seem to struggle the most against teams with powerful offenses and great shooters. However, this is a better team than UGA, and, more importantly, Carolina needs to prove that it is capable of winning consistently. UGA seemed a bit like a fluke, but winning two in a row might make a bit more of a believer out of me.
The key matchup in the game should be Damontre Harris against LSU's big center Justin Hamilton, who comes in at a mini-Shaq-esque 6'11 / 260. Hamilton is LSU's bread-and-butter player, a guy they can rely on to shoot above 50% around the basket and to clean up off the glass. As good as Harris has been this year, I worry that he's not yet strong enough to play well against this type of player. If Harris can find a way to continue to display his recent defensive prowess, however, we have a good shot to hold LSU to a low score, and if we can also shoot a little better than we did against UGA, I see Carolina as earning a second-straight win in this game.