Like night and day: LSU basketball team has shown marked improvement going into Georgia game

The difference in the LSU basketball team that took an 18-point beating at Alabama on Feb. 3, capping a stretch in which the Tigers lost four of five games, and the one that’s won three games in a row is like night and day.

Three consecutive wins by double digits, including a convincing 13-point victory over then-No. 16 Tennessee, is certainly proof. LSU also impressed Saturday in dominating Auburn 104-80.

Improved play on both ends of the floor, particularly on defense, have boosted the NCAA tournament résumé of a team that dropped Southeastern Conference games by 30, 13 and 18 points — and took another loss in a last-minute meltdown against Texas Tech — in a 16-day stretch.

Three straight wins aside, coach Will Wade said LSU hasn’t turned the corner just yet going into a 6 p.m. Tuesday matchup with Georgia in Stegeman Coliseum.

The Tigers outlasted the Bulldogs 94-92 in an overtime thriller back on Jan. 6.

LSU (14-6, 9-4 SEC) will be trying try to take a half-game lead over Arkansas in the standings when it goes against Georgia (13-9, 6-9 SEC). Arkansas, which is also 9-4 in conference play, hosts league-leading Alabama on Wednesday night.

“I think the Tennessee and Auburn games have been closer to our best 40 minutes,” Wade said Monday. “We haven’t gotten there yet, but I think it’s been closer.”

To Wade, of course, closer usually means not that close.

Which is why he wants to see the Tigers take another step or two in the right direction before making that declaration — if he does.

“We’re getting closer. … I hope so, we need to start doing that,” he said. “I was talking to our staff this morning; there’s still eight to 10 different things that I think we can do better. We’ve got some buttons we can still push.”

With that in mind, Wade said there are two or three players who they can get more production from offensively and defensively as they make that final push toward postseason play. The SEC tournament begins in just 15 days.

“There’s still some low-hanging fruit for us to improve,” he said.

With that in mind, knowing the predicament his team was in earlier this month, there’s no doubt Wade will remind the Tigers of the fight the Bulldogs put up when they met in Baton Rouge.

The game featured 10 ties and 20 lead changes, and it only went to overtime after Javonte Smart buried two 3-point shots in the final 1:44 while the defense kept the Bulldogs off the scoreboard in that final stretch.

“Watching the last Georgia game, it’s like two totally different teams,” Wade said. “We’re obviously a lot further along than we were the first time we played them, and Georgia’s a lot further along as well.”

Georgia led by 10 with 9:07 to play in regulation before LSU fought back to force overtime, but the Tigers had no answer for Justin Kier, who poured in 25 points, and point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who finished with 21 points and nine assists.

Cam Thomas, who has scored 25 points or more in five of the past six games, had 26 that night and Smart dropped in 21.

That started a four-game winning streak for LSU before it hit a bump in the road.

When the Tigers lost four of five, Wade quickly took steps to make sure the slide would end following a 78-60 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

He further defined responsibilities by cutting down the rotations, which resulted in wins over Mississippi State, Tennessee and Auburn.

“I was very clear a couple weeks ago about what everybody’s going to do,” he said before pausing for effect. “I couldn’t have been more clear. I was very, very clear … crystal clear.

“Everybody is well aware of what the expectations are and what happens if the expectations are not met.”

Ball movement on offense and transition defense were major points of emphasis, especially during a weekend off when Florida had to postpone a game because of COVID-19 issues.

Forward Darius Days said ball movement was essential after LSU’s offense went stagnant during its midseason slump.

“There were a couple of spurts in the middle of the season where we were just playing a lot of one-on-one ball,” he said. “But everybody’s starting to understand each other, starting to understand their roles.

“We’re taking care of the ball and doing what we’re supposed to do on the offensive and defensive ends.”

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