LSU non-conference schedule ends Saturday – finally

LSU's pre-Southeastern Conference basketball schedule will finally come to a conclusion Saturday afternoon when Rhode Island visits the PMAC.
It will take the Tigers 54 days to play their 12 non-conference games. Saturday's game against the Rams will just be LSU's fifth in a span of 34 days. Tipoff has been moved up to 4:30 p.m. to avoid a conflict with the New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles NFL playoff game.
"I have started feeling like a football coach, said Tigers coach Johnny Jones at his post-practice press conference Friday afternoon. "We have been playing one game a week, going Saturday to Saturday. We have had a long time to prepare for each game. The guys have grown and have gotten better."
Since LSU defeated Butler on Dec. 1 in the third-place game of the Old Spice Classic, Jones has been able to have a lot of practice time. There was a 13-day break in the schedule due to semester exams. The Tigers resumed their games on Dec. 14 against Louisiana-Monroe.
The game against Rhode Island will be the fourth in a row on a Saturday in the PMAC. The only other contest during that stretch was a trip to Texas Tech, one week before Christmas Day. The Tigers have won the previous four games - the last two against UAB and McNeese State by 20-plus points.
LSU will have played 12 games in about an eight-week span. Jones would not be in favor of starting the season at a later date. The Tigers' opener this season was played on Nov. 12.
"I like getting started playing games in November after practicing in October," Jones said. "Finals (exams) take control of your schedule a little bit. Then, you run into Christmas break. The students are gone. Your crowd is affected a little bit with the absence of the students."
Another issue for many of the SEC schools is its non-conference schedule. Conference commissioner Mike Slive has indicated that he wants SEC basketball teams to beef up their schedules. The Tigers have played only two BCS conference teams - Memphis (American Athletic) and Texas Tech (Big 12).
"We play a very challenging schedule," Jones said. "No. 1, we have 18 tough SEC games right off the bat. I would like to play some BCS-conference caliber opponents. But, it's always tough trying to get home games. The SEC office is helping with the Big 12-SEC Challenge."
LSU's game against Texas Tech was not a part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge this year. The Tigers were one of four SEC teams not having a game in the event this season. The SEC has four more teams than the Big 12.
A team's non-conference schedule certainly needs to be adjusted depending upon the makeup of the roster. It would make no sense for a coach to load up his non-conference schedule with top-50 opponents if his team is inexperienced.
"You must have balance in your schedule and recruiting," Jones said. "You have to be mindful of the team you have coming back. A coach knows what's best for his team. If you are building a program, you schedule a certain way. If you have been at a place for 12 years, you schedule a certain way."
Jones is very satisfied with his non-conference schedule. Most of LSU's opponents have come from two conferences. The Tigers swept four Southland teams - Northwestern State, UNO, Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State.
Rhode Island will be the third Atlantic-10 opponent for LSU. The Tigers lost to Massachusetts and defeated St. Joseph's. The Rams are 8-6 with just one true road victory in five games. Rhode Island has lost its two games against BCS conference teams - SMU (89-58) and top-ranked Arizona (87-59).
"Rhode Island is a team like St. Joseph's," Jones said. "They have good guard play with capable shooters on the perimeter. Our main focus is rebounding. This game is really, really important. We want to make sure we are at our best going into conference play."
The Tigers will play host to Tennessee in their SEC opener Tuesday night. LSU players certainly have a NCAA tournament bid as their goal. Jones is happy with that mindset.
"I like (the players are talking about the NCAA tournament)," Jones said. "I want them to have a vision. That drives them to get better.
"We have seniors (Shavon Coleman and Andre Stringer) and that's important too. This is their last opportunity to get to the tournament. They set a standard and an approach each day. I think if these guys stay focused, great things will be in store for them."