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LSU forward Johnny O'Bryant III drives against Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

LSU forward Johnny O'Bryant III drives against Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

Keep LSU on your watch list

Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 1:03 PM

By Scooter Hobbs / American Press

LSU basketball isn’t the necessity and fan staple that football is, of course. So while happy and encouraged by head coach Johnny Jones’ steady progress with the Tigers, the general feeling seems to be: “Wake me up when they get there.”

Well, maybe that was the alarm going off Tuesday night when LSU jumped all over Kentucky and led wire to wire to beat the Wildcats 87-82.

There’s your signature victory.

LSU must have been doing something to suggest the big upset was possible. The Tigers sold well over 12,000 tickets in advance, even if only a little more than half of them were able to brave the great ice storm to get to the arena.

The lure of free hot dogs attracted the largest student section crowd in recent memory, and it’s nice to know some things never change. You can still buy college students with free food, even the humble hot dog.

Whether it signals a change in LSU basketball is yet to be determined.

Whether it was the springboard back to the future, back to the Deaf Dome-glory days, remains to be seen.

Maybe it was the statement game that LSU is back. Perhaps. Maybe in the end it will be just the unexplainable, head-scratching upset by an average team.

That’s up to LSU.

It’s like getting a good new job. It’s a great opportunity, shows you’re capable. But you still have to make something out of it.

That’s usually the tougher part.

That’s what LSU has to do now.

The Tigers need only ask Arkansas, its guest for Saturday afternoon’s next game in the Maravich Assembly Center.

It’s not a happy story.

The Razorbacks are the only other SEC team to beat Kentucky this season. It was a little tougher. Did it in overtime at home.

But the Razorbacks, who really, really care about basketball up there, thought they had finally turned the corner after several frustrating seasons and, fresh off the upset — woo pig sooie — were ready to call the hogs and rejoin the ranks of the contenders.

But Arkansas lost its next two games and has now dropped three out of four since it thought it got over that hump by bumping the Wildcats. Arkansas is 2-5 in the SEC and it’s looking more and more like beating the Cats may be its lone highlight, a curiosity piece.

Let it be a warning for LSU.

The Tigers are good enough to make some noise. Jones has recruited well. There is some talent there and maybe it’s starting to mesh. It’s a fairly young team, but there are enough veterans in key roles to where it’s not an excuse, particularly if Johnny O’Bryant III stays as comfortable as he’s seemed lately in letting them ride on his back.

It’s a fairly entertaining, up-tempo team that could catch the fans’ fancy. It’s far better offensively than defensively, but Jones may have discovered something in recent games by dialing up more full-court pressure.

It was the key in overcoming a 19-point second-half deficit at Alabama last Saturday and the key in jumping all over Kentucky early and announcing that the Tigers would be taking the fight to the Wildcats.

The depth’s not really there to do it full-time but it can be a go-to ploy either to set the faster tempo LSU prefers or to be a momentum changer when the shots aren’t falling.

But, in the end, LSU has to win and win consistently.

And now is the time to show it.

LSU is 4-3 in SEC play. That gives it plenty of company. At the moment, eight of the league’s 14 teams are either 4-3 or 3-4.

You could call it parity, but it’s not SEC football, it’s basketball, so mediocrity is probably a better description.

The 4-3 record gets you in a big jumbled tie for fourth right now.

Florida (7-0) and Kentucky (5-2) are clearly the class of the league, while Ole Miss (5-2) has been the pleasant surprise.

The job of those eight teams in the middle is to separate themselves from the gaggle of mediocrity and get into the next-best group behind the third-ranked Gators.

LSU is — or can be — as good or better than any of them.

If nothing else, the Kentucky victory can be a reference point as to how good the Tigers can be when the intensity is there.

LSU’s 51 percent shooting was the best any team has done against the Wildcats this season. The 11 blocked shots the Tigers had were the most allowed by a Kentucky team in John Calipari’s five years as head coach.

Perhaps most impressive, though, the Tigers all but shrugged off UK’s attempts to get back in the game and answered every rally.

Maybe they’re learning to win, although they’ve yet to show it on the road.

The Tigers let one at Ole Miss get away in the final minute and they wasted the impressive comeback at Alabama with questionable decisions in the final minute.

But if you can do it against Kentucky — home, away or on the moon — you can do it against anybody.

The next six games (before a return trip to Kentucky) will likely tell the tale. They are all very winnable — Arkansas, at Georgia, Auburn, at Texas A&M, at Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Come out of that 5-1 or even 4-2 and an NCAA tournament bid starts looking possible, maybe even doable.

It might be time to wake up and pay attention.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com

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