In coach Trent Johnson’s first season at LSU, his team has already clinched the SEC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in next weekend’s conference tournament. While it’s had a successful run thus far, LSU would like to avoid heading into the tournament with back-to-back defeats.
In their regular-season finale, the 12th-ranked Tigers look to bounce back from a disappointing loss Saturday when they visit Auburn, which is trying to pull off an upset to bolster its NCAA tournament chances.
Johnson took over a program last April that combined for 11 SEC wins in its previous two seasons and has transformed LSU (25-5, 13-2) into one of the elite teams in the league.
After clinching the West Division’s top seed for the SEC tournament with a 79-72 victory over Auburn (20-10, 9-6) on Feb. 21, LSU earned a share of the conference title with an 81-75 win over Florida three days later. LSU then won the league title outright with a 73-70 victory at Kentucky last Saturday.
LSU was unable to keep the momentum going, though, suffering a 75-67 loss to Vanderbilt on Wednesday, its first league defeat since falling to Alabama 65-59 in its conference opener.
Anchored by 6-foot-11 center Chris Johnson, LSU prides itself on defense, but it allowed the Commodores to hit 51.9 percent of their shots and score 40 points in the paint. LSU wasn’t any better on offense, shooting 36.2 percent and scoring 16 in the paint.
“We’ve just got to go back and rebuild, get back to doing what we were doing,” said senior guard Marcus Thornton, who had 18 points Wednesday after averaging 26.0 in his previous five games. “We want to finish the season off strong.”
Finishing the season with a win at Auburn won’t be easy.
In their meeting at Baton Rouge two weeks ago, LSU led by only three with a minute to go. Thornton, who finished with 25 points, put the game away with four free throws in the final 47 seconds.
Auburn has won seven of its last eight - its only loss coming to LSU - and is looking for a marquee victory to build its NCAA tournament resume.
“Right now we’re just worried about the next game against LSU,” forward Korvotney Barber said after Tuesday’s 77-73 win at rival Alabama. “Hopefully we can win a few games in the SEC tournament and make it to the NCAA tournament.”
Auburn won Tuesday’s game in impressive fashion, rallying from a 13-point deficit in the final 15 minutes. It clinched a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the league tournament, reached its most SEC wins since 2000 and its ninth 20-win season.
Barber had 13 points and 16 rebounds against the Crimson Tide, his third double-double in five games. He had 19 points and five boards versus LSU earlier this season.
Barber and Rasheem Barrett have led Auburn this season, and both seniors will play their final game at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.
Auburn, 15-3 at home, has lost three of its last four on its own court to LSU.
LSU is trying to win seven consecutive SEC road games in a single season for the first time since an eight-game streak from Jan. 3-Feb. 21, 1981.