By Rich Ruben
The Trojans play LSU Saturday at 6:00 in the second game of the HoopHall LA event at Staples. Utah plays a ranked San Diego State squad in the opening game. This will be the closest to a true road game the Tigers will play before beginning SEC play at Tennessee on January 4. Some of the shine of this game was diminished by the Tigers 74-63 upset loss to East Tennessee State on Wednesday. LSU is 7-3 and the Trojans are 9-2 entering this matchup. The LSU loss on Wednesday could hurt the Trojans season resume. A win over the Tigers will not be as “big” of a win and a loss will be a “worse” loss. The Tigers’ other losses were by 2 to both VCU and Utah State, and both are good teams.
The Tigers won the regular season SEC title last season, finishing 16-2 in conference play. They lost to Florida in the conference tournament and lost in the Sweet 16 to Michigan State, finishing 28-7. Head Coach Will Wade is in his third season, coming to the Tigers after a successful run at VCU. LSU lost their top three scorers from last year to the pros, but return a solid group and added a 5 star big man. 6’9” Trendon Watford has played very well so far. Senior guard Marlon Taylor played in his first game this season against East Tennessee, after recovering from a foot injury. He scored 2 points in 7 minutes. Last year the Tigers were 21-3 when he was in the starting lineup. He will likely be on a minutes restriction against the Trojans. Five Tigers are scoring in double figures and six are averaging 25 minutes plus per game. The minutes and scoring may spread out a bit with Taylor’s return.
The talent level in the SEC is believed to be down this season. The Tigers were picked to finish fourth; the projected top two were Kentucky and Florida. 6’4” senior guard Skylar Mays was second team All Conference last year. LSU generally plays with the 6’9” Watford, two 6’6” forwards and two big guards. They will likely start three sophomores and a senior around freshman Watford. The Trojans have settled into a starting lineup of 6’11” Nick Rakocevic and 6’9” Onyeka Okongwu in the front court and 6’6” Elijah Weaver, 6’3” Jonah Mathews and 6’ Ethan Anderson at guard.
The Trojans are led by Freshman Okongwu who is averaging 18.4 points per game. He has had some big scoring games interspersed with games in which he scores less but still rebounds and defends at a high level. He has scored over 20 points five times, and had a low of 6 in the win over Nevada.
Breaking Down The Tigers
The Trojans will have a size advantage. Two of SC’s three bigs will be in the game almost all of the time unless Coach Enfield decides to play small to match up better with the Tigers. The X factor for LSU may be Taylor; how much and how well can he play.
Freshman forward Watford has been the most important player for the Tigers. He is the only big man playing a lot of minutes. At 6’9” and 235 pounds, he has a very similar build to Big O. Watford is averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, and is shooting 51% from the field and 59% from the free throw line.
Senior guard Mays leads the back court. He averages almost 16 ppg, almost 5 rebounds and has a 1/1 assist to turnover ratio. He is making 52 % of his shots from the field, almost 34% from three, and 88% from the line.
Three other players have played a lot of minutes so far. 6’6” sophomore forward Darius Days averages 13 points and 8 rebounds and is shooting 57% from the field and 82% from the line. 6’6” senior forward Emmitt Williams averages 15.5 points and 7 rebounds, shooting 67% from the field and 80% from the line. And 6’4” senior guard Javonte Smart averages 10 points and 4 boards, making 39% of his shots from the field and 28% from three.
As a team, the Tigers are much more efficient on the offensive end than the Trojans, making over 51% of their shots and 75.5% from the line. They struggle like the Trojans from three, making only 32%. The Trojans make 45% of their shots and 66% from the line. SC actually is making a higher percentage from three at almost 36%, the result of shooting much better the last three games from long range.
LSU averages 9 points more than SC per game, and gives up almost exactly the same amount of points. The difference is that the Tigers blew out some of their weaker opponents by big margins. The most important difference in LSU’s favor is at the free throw line. If it is a close game with a lot of foul shots, LSU has an advantage.
Two things stand out in this game. First, the Trojans’ guards have been shooting the ball much better over the last three games. If they can stay hot, the Trojans are much more dangerous on offense. Between the three Trojan big men, they should get their usual 40 plus points, and it will be up to the guards to have a good game.
Second, the Trojans are much bigger in the front court. Only Watford matches the size of the three Trojan big men. It will be interesting to watch whether the Trojans bigs dominate, or if they struggle to contain the Tigers’ athletic but smaller forwards.
LSU will come in hungry and knowing they need a quality non conference win. But the Trojan players and coaches also know this is a very important game for their resume. Both teams have something to prove. The fact that LSU is traveling to LA may benefit Troy. I like the Trojans to win a hard fought game by 5-8 points.