After a 68-50 home loss to Tennessee on Jan. 7, LSU rudely learned how conference can play can leave you bowed and bloodied.
A manic month later, the Tigers met an adoring crowd at the end of the hardwood after toppling 11th-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday.
In between, the Tigers (13-6, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) trudged and slogged over the rough terrain of a front-loaded SEC schedule. With an above-.500 record and with a showpiece victory before a workable February schedule — starting with Arkansas (12-7, 2-5) on Saturday — the Tigers seem to have an easily identifiable opportunity.
“We can make a push,” freshman forward Jordan Mickey said Thursday.
Of course, no pundit confuses the SEC for a murderer’s row.
The league sits seventh in the RPI rankings, ahead of only the newly minted American Athletic Conference and at the back of the power conference pack, according to CBS Sports’ calculations.
Still, the Tigers faced seven opponents with an average RPI of No. 65, and only Georgia played tougher schedule to open SEC action. All told, LSU faced three RPI top-50 teams in Kentucky (No. 14), Missouri (No. 44) and Tennessee (No. 49), and they traveled to Ole Miss and Alabama — two places that have historically given LSU trouble.
“We’re coming together at the right time,” Mickey said. “We’ve talked about it in the past, but chemistry is coming together and getting a lot better.”
Looming is a Razorbacks team that struggles on the road. Under Mike Anderson, Arkansas is just 3-27 in road or neutral-site games since he took over ahead of the 2011-12 season.
On Thursday, LSU coach Johnny Jones took an even tone when asked if his squad might celebrate a little too long after dispatching a blue blood in Kentucky.
“You want to make sure your guys understand the importance of the next basketball game,” Jones said. “We talk about it all the time. The most important game on our schedule is the next one. We beat one of the top-ranked teams in the country, but we understand the ramifications of our next game.”
The Razorbacks also toppled Kentucky, and they led No. 3 Florida late in regulation before crumbling and falling in overtime — performances that trip should caution wires in LSU’s locker room.
“Everybody wants to beat you,” guard Anthony Hickey said. “It’s a team looking for ... a little crack.”
After Arkansas and its pressure defense, LSU’s schedule seemingly offers up a reprieve with a road trip to Georgia, a home game against Auburn and back-to-back visits to Texas A&M and Arkansas. The Tigers then return home for Mississippi State.
To summarize: LSU has a six-game stretch against teams that are a combined 12-20 in the SEC and an average RPI of about 142. Of those games, LSU is projected to snag five wins, according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analytics.
Do that, and the Tigers could enter their next meeting with Kentucky on Feb. 22 firmly entrenched in the SEC’s upper tier, living up to preseason predictions of a fourth-place finish.
“We know that we’ve got a great team,” forward Shavon Coleman said. “We can compete with anybody in the country. We feel that we’re a tournament team, too. We’re doing everything we can to get better day by day.”
But the past month also imparted another pearl of wisdom.
“Every day,” Coleman said, “someone is coming after you.”
LSU in Paradise Jam
LSU offically filled in a chunk of next season’s schedule Thursday when it confirmed it will take part in the 2014 Paradise Jam.
The in-season tournament, which happens Nov. 21-24 in the U.S. Virgin Islands, features an eight-team field that will include LSU, Clemson, Seton Hall, Illinois State, Nevada, Weber State, Old Dominion and Gardner-Webb.
In addition, LSU already has three games set against a Massachusetts, Texas Tech and a trip to UAB as part of home-and-home agreements.
The Tigers might also take part in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.