Walking up the tunnel Thursday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the LSU women’s basketball team endured a 40-minute scrape with Ole Miss that served as the prime illustration of the Southeastern Conference’s defining feature: depth.
Pegged to finish 12th in the preseason and entering with an RPI near No. 300, the Rebels nearly spoiled the Tigers’ conference opener in what other leagues might be considered a probable victory.
Not in the SEC.
Entering the week, six teams occupied spots in the Top 25. Eleven squads were in the RPI top 100 according to RealTimeRPI.com
Last March, the conference slotted nine teams in the NCAA Tournament field — a feat ESPN bracket expert Charlie Creme expects to take place once again.
And one of those is LSU (10-4, 1-0), which in Creme’s prediction would be among the last four teams given entrance to the tournament as No. 12 seed.
Although it’s her first pass through the gantlet, LSU freshman guard Danielle Ballard has a pretty firm grasp on the league: “Everyone is faster, stronger, tougher,” she said.
No. 6 Kentucky, which went 28-6 and lost in the Elite Eight last season to Connecticut, remains the prohibitive favorite.
The Wildcats (13-1, 1-0) lead the SEC in scoring (77.7 points per game) and margin of victory at a mind-boggling 27 points, including four victories by 40 or more. Their lone loss? An 81-51 drubbing at Baylor, which was No. 1 at the time.
Up next is No. 10 Georgia (13-1, 1-0), which is holding opponents to 48 points per game and forcing roughly 25 turnovers per night.
Oh, and don’t forget No. 12 Tennessee and its 22 trips to the Final Four along with 15 regular-season SEC titles. Even with legendary coach Pat Summitt stepping aside, the Volunteers (10-3, 1-0) still can’t be forgotten.
And there’s still No. 18 South Carolina, No. 23 Arkansas and No. 24 Texas A&M to contend with on the docket. Never mind that Vanderbilt is No. 15 in the RPI and Florida sits at No. 31.
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell frames the task in front of the Tigers, who went 23-10 last season and reached the second of the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got to understand that we have to play with intensity for 40 minutes,” she said, “or it’s going to be a long year.”
With only 10 scholarship players, LSU has fared well against teams in the RPI top 100, notching victories against West Virginia (No. 37) and North Carolina State (68) with losses to Georgetown (No. 38) and Florida Gulf Coast (No. 49).
It’s a suitable start to filling in blanks on a postseason résumé, helping land LSU at No. 86 in the RPI. Yet it’s how Caldwell’s team, picked sixth in the preseason, finishes in its rugged league that will prove vital.
“Every loss, you go back and you look at it and dissect,” she said.
“You understand the journey at the end and where it puts you to have some cushion going into conference play.”
Despite losing four of their top scorers, including forward LaSondra Barrett, the Tigers offense has improved, averaging 75.5 points.
In Ballard, a 5-foot-9 freshman, they have a crafty guard averaging 15.4 points. Junior Theresa Plaisance leads the SEC at 18.4 points per game, filling Barrett’s void.
LSU’s early SEC schedule could also glean insight into where the Tigers sit in relation to their peers. They travel to Florida on Sunday, then trek to Arkansas before coming home against Mississippi State, which at 8-6 and No. 248 in the RPI represents a breather before a road trip to ranked South Carolina.
Brutal? No doubt.
“We’ll have a pretty good idea about how we’re going to do,” Plaisance said. “These next four games are going to be tough. We just need to pick it up and set the tone for the rest of the season. The first season is over now.”
But Caldwell needs a bigger sample size before rendering judgment.
“You’ve got to play everybody, and you can’t hesitate to get in there and stand toe-to-toe,” she said. “Whether it’s on your home court or away, you’ve got to be that way.”