Trent Johnson, the 2008-09 SEC Coach of the Year, might be making an early case for a repeat with the returns from the NIT South Region.
LSU stands at 3-0 on the season, and has won the opening round of the Dick’s Sporting Goods’ NIT Tip-Off, hosted in Baton Rouge.
After a dominant 82-62 win against Louisiana-Monroe the Tigers dispatched Indiana State, 56-45, in the opening game of the tournament.
With an impressive 71-60 upset victory over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers—the overwhelming Favorite of the Sun Belt Conference and Top 25 vote getter—the Tigers advance to the Big Apple for the Pre-Season NIT Finals to face No. 12 UConn (3-0) in the Semi-Final.
Beating the Huskies might be a tall order for coach Johnson’s squad—picked to finish at or near the bottom of the SEC and left completely out of the top 25 conversation—who won the SEC outright last year and appeared in the second-round of the NCAA tournament.
The snub is understandable, considering what the Bayou Bengals lost—SEC Player of the Year Marcus Thornton, one of the league's best defensive big-men in Chris Johnson, ball-handler Garrett Temple, and talented workmen Terry Martin, Quintin Thornton and Delwan Graham—to graduation and the NBA draft.
What they do have is a well-coached and disciplined (if not deep) squad that seems to be playing very well together.
Yet, despite the losses, it might be perilous to underestimate the talent of this team.
The Tigers' 6-7 small forward Tasmin Mitchell averaged over 16 points and seven rebounds last year and has been named to the Naismith Award Watch List. Their power forward, Storm Warren, has taken a lot of pressure off of Mitchell and has been downright nasty (with three double-doubles in as many games and shooting over seventy percent from the field) for opponents thus far.
Their shooting guard, Bo Spencer, is one of the most underrated players in the SEC, and led the way against the Hilltoppers with a career high 28 points; including a back-breaking three-pointer that gave the Tigers the lead for good after being tied late in the game.
With senior guard Alex Farer out with a knee injury, and four walk-ons rounding out the young roster, the Tigers can ill-afford further injury or undisciplined play.
Nor can they afford the long shooting dry-spells that kept their first three opponents closer than necessary.
Connecticut, on the other hand, is (re)loaded with talent after a Final Four appearance last year, and like LSU they play tough, hard-nosed defense.
Unlike the Tigers, the Huskies are big; with three seven footers. They're also deep, with a nice mix of experience and youth, and could be one of the most talented teams in the country from top to bottom.
Jim Calhoun, despite an NCAA cloud hanging over his head, is unquestionably one of the elite coaches in NCAA History, and has a knack for having his teams focus on the task at hand instead of distractions or infractions or whatever.
For the Tigers, Trent Johnson might lack the lengthy resume of Calhoun, but he is well respected and looks to be on his way to building a solid program in Baton Rouge. His teams are known to be well-conditioned and play with strong fundamentals.
If the Tigers can keep it close anything can happen.
The national media will show no respect for LSU in the lead up to this one. Vegas will likely have the Tigers a double-digit underdog, and hopefully UConn will be more focused on the ‘probable’ match-up with Duke in the NIT Final.
That’s all well and good, and frankly the Huskies probably should be a heavy favorite: Nonetheless, LSU is going to go ahead and make the trip.
You might be surprised at how good this team is, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll take a big ol' Bayou Bengal bite out of the Big Apple!
SEC West Note: Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State have all suffered an upset by inferior teams and Arkansas was blown out by Louisville. Only Ole Miss (2-0) and LSU (3-0) remain unbeaten, with LSU having the most impressive win—over WKU. Another win or two in the NIT would certianly force voters to re-evaluate the Tigers ranking, or lack thereof.
By Henry Ball (a.k.a. Southern Man) Featured Columnist and Syndicated Writer