These Tigers aren't the ones UF caged
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 7:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 7:50 p.m.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Time tends to fly during a season. You play twice a week and the games pile up, and the next thing you know it's Senior Night and tournament time.
But even with the speed of a college basketball season, it seems like so long ago.
Back then, we were still dissecting the BCS National Championship Game and bracing for the second weekend of the baseball playoffs. As is the culture of American sports, it was about the time of the year when people start looking out of the corners of their eyes at college basketball.
And for many college teams, they are nowhere near what they want to be in early January. It doesn't mean they will become that team, only that they have a long way to go.
That was LSU on Jan. 12 when it played host to Florida.
“We were still trying to figure out who we were as a team,” said LSU center Johnny O'Bryant III.
They weren't very good. Florida whacked the Tigers that day even with Mike Rosario out with an ankle injury. The 74-52 final was a score that was indicative of the difference between the two teams. Florida outrebounded LSU 53-34, although it didn't hurt the Gators that O'Bryant was coming off an ankle injury.
LSU would lose its next two games as well, part of an 0-4 start to start the conference season, as the Tigers were dismissed as a non-factor in the SEC.
But slowly, they began to get it. They began to adjust to coach Johnny Jones and the running game and the freedom to shoot.
And they started winning.
On Thursday afternoon in the Bridgestone Arena, they held off Georgia 68-63, the same Georgia team that beat them earlier in the season when things weren't so good.
Today, they will try to win for the 20th time this season when they take on the mighty Gators in the SEC quarterfinals.
“I can't wait to play them,” O'Bryant said.
Because then, they had no chance. Now, they feel like they do.
“We're a better basketball team than the first time we played them,” Jones said. “But they've improved as well.”
Florida's improvements have been more subtle because of their recent struggles away from the O'Dome and late-game collapses on the road. The Gators were so dominant early in games like their win in Baton Rouge that it gives off the impression they have regressed.
But in truth, the competition has been better in the back half of the SEC season. And that includes playing LSU now vs. playing the Tigers then.
After that four-game losing streak to start the season, LSU has won 10 of 15 games including Thursday's win over Georgia.
“These guys have continued really to amaze me,” Jones said. “We're a lot further on right now than I thought we would be.”
Like Florida, LSU has different ways to attack offensively. Sophomore Anthony Hickey leads the nation in steals. O'Bryant leads the SEC in double-doubles. Guard Andre Stringer showed his clutchness Wednesday with a huge 3 and two clinching free throws.
And in this game, Jones chose to start Shavon Coleman at small forward. He responded with 24 points.
“Coleman shot the ball in,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox. “That's a big difference.”
I'm not trying to make the Tigers out to be some uber-team that should have the Gators trembling in their Nikes. They are next to last in the conference in free-throw shooting and missed 15 of them on Thursday. Their short guards struggle to defend. And on Thursday, they really only played one good half.
All I'm saying is this isn't the same LSU team that Florida humiliated on Jan. 12. And this is tournament play, where anything can happen.
For Florida to advance to the semifinals, the Gators need to play like they did. You know, way back in January.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.