Just over a year ago, LSU fired its coach as a disappointing season was drawing to a close. As 2008-09 winds down, coach Trent Johnson has the program poised for its first SEC championship in three years.
The 18th-ranked Tigers look to clinch a share of the conference regular season title Tuesday night against Florida, which is in the mix for first place in the league’s competitive East Division.
LSU (23-4, 11-1) went 13-18 last season to finish fourth in the six-team West. Coach John Brady was fired before the season ended despite taking the Tigers to the Final Four only two years earlier.
The 2007-08 season now must seem a distant memory, as Johnson, who was hired in April, has LSU a virtual lock for this season’s NCAA tournament.
The Tigers clinched the West’s top seed for the SEC tournament with a 79-72 victory over Auburn on Saturday - their 11th straight league victory since losing to Alabama in the conference opener.
“There is more out there for us to accomplish,” Johnson said. “Nobody in the locker room wanted to cut down the nets. … They were very subdued and relaxed. It was a businesslike approach. We just want to win the next game.”
The Tigers also have a three-game lead over Florida (21-6, 8-4), Kentucky and South Carolina - all tied for first in the East. LSU needs one victory in its final four regular season games or losses by all three East leaders to win its first SEC regular season crown since reaching the Final Four in 2005-06.
“We have a pretty good cushion in the SEC, so we know that whatever team comes in going to give us their best shot,” guard Garrett Temple said.
Marcus Thornton, who had 25 points and seven rebounds against Auburn, continues to lead the Tigers’ offense.
Thornton is averaging 24.3 points and 7.2 rebounds in his last six games and scored 20 on 8-of-11 shooting in LSU’s 85-73 win at Florida last season.
The Tigers have won five of the last seven against the Gators, including two straight in Baton Rouge since a 70-53 loss on Jan. 28, 2003.
While the Tigers already have their division wrapped up, winning the East won’t be easy for Florida.
After visiting LSU, the Gators host Tennessee on Sunday, visit Mississippi State on March 4 and close the regular season at home against Kentucky three days later.
“We’re really excited and up for the challenge,” said forward Alex Tyus, Florida’s second-leading scorer (12.4). “We’re really going to see where we’re at as a team. We might have been unsure earlier, but now we know we can do it. We have a lot of confidence. We feel like we’re coming on.”
The Gators haven’t played since last Saturday’s impressive 82-68 win over Vanderbilt. Florida had five players in double figures, shot a season-high 61.2 percent from the field and made 10-of-19 from 3-point range.
“When we get that kind of balanced scoring, it’s tough to beat us,” said Nick Calathes, who finished with 14 points despite playing with the flu. “If we get that every game, contributors like that, we’re a really good team.”
Calathes, averaging a team-high 18.6 points, had 16 points and seven rebounds against LSU last season.
Florida improved to 15-0 in Gainesville this season with the win over the Commodores, but has just two wins in seven road games. Breaking out of their road funk in Baton Rouge won’t be easy for the Gators against an LSU team that is 18-1 at home.