It’s Mardi Gras season in Louisiana and the good times have definitely been rolling for the LSU men’s basketball team.
On Monday, the team and its fans finally got what they all have been waiting for: The Tigers broke into the top 25 in both polls this week, No. 23 in the Associated Press and No. 24 in the coaches’ poll.
First-year head coach Trent Johnson has done a brilliant job coaching this veteran group to a sparkling 21-4 record. After opening SEC play with a loss at Alabama, the Tigers have rattled off nine straight wins and have a conference regular-season title in their sights.
But, do Johnson and this team have what it takes to finish the season strong and be a factor when March Madness comes around?
Here are some major questions the Tigers will have to answer if they want to have a chance in the NCAA tournament.
Can Johnson Find Any Production Off the Bench?
Saturday night’s comeback win over Ole Miss was a real gut check for the Tigers. It was nice to see that the team could overcome a relatively poor performance to get another win.
The problem with the win is that the bench only scored two of the 73 points put up by LSU. Alex Farrer’s two late free throws started and finished the bench scoring for the Tigers. In 40 combined minutes between five bench players, Delwan Graham took the only two shots.
If LSU is going to continue to be successful, the bench must produce positive minutes.
Quintin Thornton must play tough low post defense and rebound the basketball. Chris Bass must step up and spell Bo Spencer and Garrett Temple at the point guard position. Storm Warren must score five to seven points a game to keep some of the scoring load off the starters.
Will the Tigers Stay Healthy?
With very little production from the bench, LSU must stay healthy to maintain the level of success it has achieved of late.
Spencer suffered an ankle injury in the Mississippi State game. He accounts for 12 points per game, makes 43 percent of his three-pointers, dishes out three assists per game, and keeps the Tigers in their offensive game plan from his point guard position.
Without him, Johnson had to use his best bench threat, Terry Martin, in the starting lineup. If Tasmin Mitchell or Marcus Thornton went down, the Tigers would be hard pressed to score. If Chris Johnson got injured, how would LSU adjust defensively in the paint? Hopefully, none of these questions have to be answered.
Where Will the Tigers Be Seeded For the NCAA Tournament?
According to the latest Bracketology projections on ESPN.com, LSU would be a No. 7 seed in the East Regional, playing in Minneapolis. For a conference front-runner and a team with a 21-4 record, this seems low.
Three double-digit losses in non-conference play are not helping LSU’s argument for a higher seed.
The poor perception of the SEC plays a major role in this as well. Obviously, the conference is down this season with many schools playing with extremely young rosters due to graduation and departures to the NBA.
Two schools have fired coaches during the season.
But looking at those same bracket projections, the SEC has five schools in the field. The Tigers will need to win at least 13 league games, as well as win a game or two in the SEC tournament, to increase their seed. If they accomplish this, I feel LSU will receive a top-five seed and get a favorable matchup in the first round.
Hopefully, the Tigers won’t have to travel all the way to Minnesota to play, either.
Can LSU Sustain Its Strong Defense?
The Tigers have played tremendous defense this season under Trent Johnson. LSU has held opponents to just 64 points, 39 percent field goal percentage, and held a plus-seven rebounding edge per game. The Tigers also block six shots and get eight steals per game.
This kind of effort will be needed night in and night out to finish off this season successfully. Games against high-scoring teams like Florida and Kentucky will help LSU come tournament time. Guarding the likes of Jodie Meeks and Nick Calathes in big games will give the Tigers the experience necessary to win games in the NCAA tournament.
Also, LSU has had a tendency to go on long scoring droughts in its games. Stiff defense and rebounding can keep LSU in games when these droughts happen.