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BATON ROUGE — LSU’s basketball program has been a consistent SEC power since the 2018-19 season when it won the conference at 16-2 and finished 28-7 after reaching the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
The Tigers were 21-10 with a 12-6 SEC finish for second in the 2019-20 COVID-19 season and finished third in the league last year at 11-6 with a 19-10 mark after advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
But in each season, coach Will Wade knew his team’s limitations and freely discussed them, usually not holding anything back. But even Wade has been taken aback by his latest team.
The No. 12 Tigers (15-1, 3-1 SEC), who host Arkansas (11-5, 1-3 SEC) on Saturday (2 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2), are the first LSU team to be 15-1 since the 1980-81 Tigers, who reached the Final Four and finished 31-5. Arkansas coach Eric Musselman will miss the game after having surgery for a shoulder injury suffered at a recent practice. Baton Rouge native Keith Smart will serve as interim coach.
“Yeah, I mean, look, we’re a good team. We’re a tough team,” Wade said after LSU won 64-58 at Florida Wednesday without injured starting point guard Xavier Pinson, who was averaging 10.9 points and 4.6 assists a game.
“We play hard, physical. We’ve got good stuff to us, man,” Wade said. “We got good DNA. We’re built on a rock-solid foundation.”
In the past, Wade tended to have to hide weaknesses in certain games. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.
“This is not some fluke or flimsy stuff, or one bad thing is going to blow our house down,” he said.
LSU has not had to depend on a certain few players shooting and/or rebounding well to win. They have won with a variety of players shining. Guard Eric Gaines, who was averaging 8.9 points a game, started for Pinson and scored 15 points with four rebounds and two assists.
The Tigers also lost 6-foot-8 forward Tari Eason (15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds) and 7-0 center Efton Reid (8 points, 5.2 rebounds) for much of the game due to early foul trouble. But they overcame it as forward Darius Days scored six points over his average to lead the Tigers with 20.
“We’re so connected,” Wade said. “We’re so tough. We’re going to lose some games, but it’s not going to be for effort and toughness. We’re able to just will ourselves to make things happen. I mean, tougher the circumstance, the better we are. We’re on the road without two of our three leading scorers. We’re in a hostile environment. We just dug it out.”
It was LSU’s third straight win since falling 70-55 at No. 11 Auburn on Dec. 29. The Tigers beat No. 16 Kentucky, 65-60, and No. 18 Tennessee, 79-67, last week before the Florida game. LSU had not defeated back-to-back top 20 opponents in the same week since 2005.
After Arkansas, LSU faces its toughest challenge since Auburn – No. 24 Alabama (11-5, 2-2 SEC) on the road on Wednesday (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2). Then LSU travels again to Tennessee a week from Saturday (6 p.m. Eastern, ESPN).
“It’s not going to be pretty with this group,” Wade said. “But we’re fighters, man, fighters. That’s what we do. That’s what our program is about.”
It could be all for naught, however, depending on what sanctions the NCAA could hand LSU for recruiting violations as that investigation is nearing an end. But Wade and company will enjoy this season while they can.
“To see their look in the locker room, man, that was awesome,” he said. “That was fun. They were so proud – that sense of accomplishment.”
Florida (9-6, 0-3 SEC) was within 60-58 in the final minutes, but LSU shut the door.
“We just said, ‘We got to do what we got to do to win this game,” Days said.
Wade used his bench fully, playing nine at least eight minutes.
“We’re going to be much better in the long haul for this, going through all this, going through this on the road,” he said “This is just going to keep getting us better and better. We have solid kids. We’ve got an unbelievable culture. We’re built for moments like this.”