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Auburn at LSU Game Preview, Q&A and Open Thread

Auburn’s had a week to get over their tough loss to Kentucky as they head to the Bayou to take on LSU.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Auburn Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday February 20, 2021

Auburn Tigers at LSU Tigers

Pete Maravich Assembly Center - Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Time: 3PM

Network: ESPN

I call it a miracle that we got to the third week of February and through 22 of the 27 games on the schedule before Auburn had any of their games affected by anything and surprisingly, it wasn’t COVID that caused a game to be moved or postponed, it was winter weather all across the south that forced the Tigers game against Mississippi State to be postponed this week.

The extra few days means Auburn has had a week to think about what could have been last Saturday in Lexington, falling 2 points short and extending their winless streak at Rupp Arena to 19 games and 33 years and counting.

But time to turn the page to today’s contest and well, let’s take a quick look at the last time these two teams playing today faced off against one another:

This capped off an improbable last minute comeback to force OT and then blowing an early overtime lead late, only to come down and hit the game-winner with a tenth of a second left. This game had a little bit of everything, seven 3s from Devan Cambridge, unconscious 3-point shooting from LSU, a shimmy from Samir Doughty and the game-winning bucket.

Things are obviously much different this season as Auburn has lost 3 of their last 4 by a grand total of 9 points. In fact, 4 of Auburn’s 8 SEC losses has come by 2 points this season. A few bounces the other way and this season looks much different to most but it’s all a part of the growing pains as the Tigers rebuild and reload to get ready for next season.

In addition to the game preview, we have a special guest who you will hear from throughout the preview as And The Valley Shook’s Zach Junda was kind enough to join us to talk about the season LSU is having so far. My thanks to Zach for taking the time to answer some questions and you will see his thoughts throughout the preview in bold below.

Get to Know LSU

Expectations were pretty high in Baton Rouge coming into this season with key players returning along with a few key additions which will talk more about later. As for how Zach feels the LSU season has gone so far:

“LSU came into the 2020-2021 season picked to finish third in the conference, they are currently tied for second and hold the tiebreaker so yes they are meeting the bare minimum of expectations. If they hold serve this last few weeks, they’ll have polished off their third straight top-four finish, including winning the league in 2019 so we’re a far cry from the 2-16 season in Johnny Jones’s final year. The program is as healthy as it’s ever been.

Now just because they’ve done the minimum doesn’t mean there’s no complaints. They’ve struggled against teams equally talented as them, 3-5 against Quad 1 teams, and up until last week’s victory against Tennessee, didn’t have a marquee win on its resumé.

LSU choked away a seven-point lead against Texas Tech in the game’s final 59 seconds; they were blown out twice by Alabama; and lost a couple of close road games to Saint Louis and Florida. While none of those are bad losses, losing all five of those games is keeping them around the 8/9 seed range instead of being a 6 or 7 seed.”

Like Auburn, the Bayou Bengals have had a week off since they last played, a 13 point win over Tennessee. LSU is 2nd in the SEC, a half point behind Arkansas, in points per game averaging 82 PPG this season. As a team, LSU has shot respectably from 3-point range this season coming into today’s game at 34.4% from 3. But what LSU has struggled with the most this season is their work on the defensive end which has been a recurring problem with Will Wade as head coach.

“Defense has always been a sore spot in the Will Wade era, and frankly I think that’s just their mindset. But they also don’t have a true presence in the interior like when the 2019 team had Kavell Bigby-Williams; Trendon Watford and Darius Days are more stretch bigs than defensive anchors. One change I’d make is playing one of the freshman guards, Eric Gaines or Jalen Cook, more but that means taking one of Javonte Smart or Cam Thomas off the floor and that’s non-negotiable.”

While Auburn has their stud freshmen in Sharife Cooper, LSU will counter with their own in the form of guard Cameron Thomas (#24). Thomas came to Baton Rouge as a consensus Top 25 prospect and left prestigious Oak Hill Academy as the school’s all-time leading scorer. Thomas brought his scoring prowess down to the Bayou as well as he leads the SEC averaging 22.6 PPG this year. He has scored at least 20 points in 10 of LSU’s 13 SEC games so far this season. Auburn was interested in Thomas during the recruiting process before he elected to go to LSU.

“Thomas is maybe the best, most gifted scorer LSU’s had since Chris Jackson. There’s not a shot he can’t make, and when he’s on he can be devastating for opponents. But that scoring mindset can also get him and the Tigers in trouble because his shot, especially from three, isn’t falling as consistently lately and LSU doesn’t rebound well enough to generate sufficient second chance opportunities.

But the thing I’ve loved most about Cam Thomas is he can more than compensate for an off night from three by getting to the free throw line. He’s the NCAA leader in free throw makes and attempts and is currently shooting just a hair over 90 percent at the line. That’s a really mature thing to do for a freshman and it will serve him well in the NBA.”

As for Cam’s NBA prospects:

“Thomas will have to learn to be more than just a scorer. He’s not the best defender and when the ball finds its way to his hands, it stays with him. He’s only got 22 assists through 19 games.

I would imagine most of that comes from him always being the best player on his team regardless of level. Why would he pass the ball to lesser teammates when he’s a guaranteed bucket? Why should he waste energy on the defensive end? But when he enters the NBA he won’t be a team’s primary scoring option, at least not at first. He’ll have to be more than a ball stopping guard that plays little to no defense in order to stay on the floor. But it appears he’s realizing that he’s had four assists in back-to-back games.”

It’s also been a big year for last year’s star freshmen forward Trendon Watford (#2). Watford was on last season’s All-SEC Freshmen team after averaging 13.6 PPG. This season, the Birmingham native is averaging 16.2 PPG along with 6.7 RPG. Watford’s averaging just 9 PPG in his last 4 games but I can see him bouncing back in today’s matchup.

“The thing I’ve loved the most about Watford’s sophomore season is that he’s becoming a bit of a point forward. Watford had 53 assists in 30 games as a freshman; as a sophomore he’s already got 55 assists through only 16 games. He’s also upped his scoring thanks to an improved shot at the free throw line and he’s maintaining his 7 rebounds a game average from last season. What I don’t love is he’s playing with more of an edge and it’s gotten him in foul trouble quite a bit. He’s been T’d up a few times this year.”

Junior guard Javonte Smart (#1) has gotten better and better in his 3 seasons on the Bayou. His scoring this season is up to 16.1 PPG and is shooting 43.8% from 3-point range this season (46-105), best in the SEC with a minimum of 100 attempts. He’s also averaging 4.1 APG which leads LSU.

“This is the fully realized Javonte Smart we’ve been dying to see for three years now. Smart came to LSU as one of the most heralded recruits in Louisiana history and there’s definitely been growth. He was a point guard in name but more of a shooting guard in nature at first and once Tremont Waters left the program you could see he wasn’t used to being a true facilitator of the offense. There was definitely a learning curve throughout the 2019-2020 season, at one point he even had more turnovers than assists, but he finally looks the part as a junior and has a chance to be an All-Conference pick come season’s end.”

Junior forward Darius Days (#4) rounds out the quartet of double-digit scorers for this LSU team. Days comes into today averaging 12.4 PPG and a team leading 7.9 RPG. But the biggest improvement for Days this year is his 3-point shooting. Last year he shot just 29.8% from 3 but this season he is shooting 42.5% from long distance.

“Days, simply put, is the glue guy that every basketball team needs. He’s LSU’s leading rebounder and wouldn’t you know in the one game he missed, LSU got clobbered on the glass. He came back the very next game and had a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double. Days may not be LSU’s best player, but he’s their most important player.”

After those four guys, there’s a huge drop off in the scoring department as those 4 combine to average 67.3 of LSU’s 82 PPG. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t role players who could have an impact on today’s game.

“The bench play from LSU has been a sore spot all year in terms of scoring. There’s been far too many nights this season where the bench has combined for single digit points. I’m still high on freshman forward Mwani Wilkinson, I think he could be an All-Defense type of guy. Aundre Hyatt has also taken on a bigger load recently, he’s only played 14 games but has started five of them, but at 6’6”, 225 he gives LSU some size on the perimeter and has a somewhat decent shot from three.”

Prediction

I’ll let our guest go first with his prediction:

“LSU’s done a good job of avoiding the dreaded bad loss but this game gives me the heebie jeebies. I fear this is the kind of game where Sharife Cooper runs wild and nearly beats LSU all by himself. I also don’t like that LSU hasn’t played in a week and whatever momentum built from its massive win over Tennessee might have passed. I do still think LSU wins but in a high scoring, back and forth affair that’s like an 84-79 kind of game.”

And as for me: both teams have been good on the offensive end but have faced some shortcomings on the other side of the ball. I think this game has the potential to be close to last year’s final score (91-90) and surely LSU hasn’t forgotten about how last year’s game went down. I think Sharife has a big game as well and allows Auburn to stay close, but LSU makes a few plays down the stretch to protect their home court.

LSU 91 Auburn 84