Of course, the Tigers (8-3) could lose at North Texas on Thursday night and make everyone pause again.
But there is enough tangible evidence through the first six weeks of the season to consider LSU as a legit threat to finish in the top half of the SEC and make a push for an NCAA tournament berth.
If the Tigers do finish in the top half of the 12-team SEC, they likely would just squeeze in behind Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama. It might not be enough for an NCAA bid, but at least it gets LSU close to the conversation.
You can be skeptical if it doesn't seem or sound realistic, but it is.
Of course, early-season losses to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama could make anyone dismiss the Tigers. But the latest victory over previously undefeated Marquette and the possibility for another win over potentially ranked Virginia at home on Jan. 2 gives LSU momentum heading into the SEC schedule.
Trent Johnson was the surprise choice to coach the Tigers once John Brady and staff exited. A native of Seattle, Johnson had a sensational run at Nevada and Stanford, but financial issues ultimately sent him to the Southeast. Stanford couldn't pay what LSU did. And there are fewer recruiting hurdles at LSU.
Johnson's first year in the program was his best since the talent was still rich. The Tigers won the SEC West title with a 13-3 record in 2009, finishing with a 27-8 overall record and a second-round NCAA tourney loss to North Carolina. But then the talent drain occurred, and the Tigers slumped to 11-20 (2-14 SEC) in Year 2 and then 11-21 (3-13 SEC) last season.
"For me, I've always said this: 'It's better to understand than to be understood,'" Johnson said as the Tigers made their way by bus to North Texas on Wednesday. "I'm competitive, so it was hard for me to see these kids go through this. There were a lot of guys on the team that had to play out of position. That was hard on me. I've been there. I know what it's like to deal with adversity. We're not there yet, but we're on our way."
The beauty of a college basketball season is that a team has plenty of time to recover. Playing at Coastal Carolina on the way to the Charleston Classic may have sounded like a good idea in the offseason. But this LSU team wasn't ready for being the big name on the schedule and lost by eight points. Coastal would later win at Clemson, too.
The Tigers then got clipped by Northwestern in the opening game of the tournament as John Shurna scored 37 points.
"We got exposed that night," Johnson said. "We don't have a guy that's a lockdown defender like [former LSU player] Garrett Temple. We don't have that guy who can guard the 3 or the 2. This team is much more conventional."
That means everyone has to help out. And the Tigers did find their purpose after the Northwestern loss, save another letdown against South Alabama -- a four-point loss in overtime.
The Tigers have taken out teams that appear to be below them (Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech in Charleston), and they won at Houston and Rutgers and beat Boise State and Irvine at home. All of that was before the Marquette win -- the game-changer for the season (so far).
The rest of those wins are NIT-worthy. But the Marquette victory is one that should be noted. Beat North Texas on the road, take out Virginia at home (and, of course, Grambling State), and suddenly the Tigers head into the SEC as a viable contender for a potential NCAA bid.
The SEC standings are no longer broken up into two divisions. Instead, it's 1-12. But the scheduling is still done on an East-West basis. That could be advantageous because the Tigers won't have to play a home-and-away series against Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt, but LSU surely can't take a game off and expect anything positive.
The Tigers may not have a lockdown defender, but their gang defense is working; since the loss to South Alabama, their last five opponents have each scored fewer than 60 points per game.
Andre Stringer, Justin Hamilton, Ralston Turner and Anthony Hickey, Storm Warren and Johnny O'Bryant aren't going to light up All-American lists. But they are functioning as one unit for Johnson, more effectively now than any other six-man rotation in the coach's previous two seasons.
"We are in Year 4 and we better be where we need to be by this time of the year," Johnson said. "Everywhere I've been, it takes to Year 4 or 5 to take off. We're getting the players that fit what we want to do. So far in Year 4, we're cracking the surface, but we've got to move forward."
Johnson comes across as stoic. He is intense. He's competitive. But he's never been one to self-promote or pound his chest about his team.
No one will pay much attention to this squad for the next three weeks while it competes under the shadow of the football team, which is aiming for the national championship. But by mid-January, when eyeballs turn to hoops, Johnson may have a team that is worthy of the attention in Baton Rouge, let alone every other SEC locale.
Or the Marquette win could be a blip, like so many other upsets that don't have traction for the team that pulled off the surprising result.
It's up to the Tigers in the next two weeks to decide if that win will matter in March.
Five months later, he edged out Connecticut's Kemba Walker for Big East Player of the Year.
Using that as a backdrop, let's remember that the list of 50 Wooden nominees is flawed, much like any of the award lists. The Wooden Award does not allow its voters to nominate any freshmen or transfers (either four-year or junior college) on their ballots.
And with college basketball as loaded with talent as any year since 2007-08, narrowing it down to 50 is not easy. So below I've attempted to come up with the names that didn't make it, either as "just missed the cut" omissions or just because they're freshmen or transfers. These guys aren't on the list (which can be found here), but might show up when it's updated during the season.
This group is by no means definitive, either. There's no telling who else might emerge nationally as the games get under way.
Let's take a look
The omissions (in alphabetical order):
Julian Boyd, Long Island: The Blackbirds are the favorite again in the Northeast Conference and the main reason is because Boyd is back and ready to dominate the stat sheet.
D.J. Cooper, Ohio: The diminutive point guard does a little bit of everything; he averaged 15.8 ppg, 7.5 apg and 5.0 rpg for the Bobcats last season.
Jared Cunningham, Oregon State: Cunningham has some of the best hops in the sport and a chance to be a Pac-12 star, allowing the Beavers to finally move up in the standings this season.
Seth Curry, Duke: Curry was a standout shooter for the Blue Devils on their trip to China and could be one of the top scorers on the team.
Brandon Davies, BYU: Davies was recently reinstated to the Cougars, and the offense is expected to flow through him inside and out as BYU mounts a campaign to win the WCC in its first year in the league.
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: SMC coach Randy Bennett envisions this as one of the best teams he's ever had, but a lot of that will have to do with whether Dellavedova can shoot like Mickey McConnell did last season.
Greg Echenique, Creighton: Echenique was a rebounding force for Venezuela this summer and should do even more for the Bluejays with a full season to work with.
Kyle Fogg, Arizona: Fogg is next in line to assume a leadership position for the Wildcats, who are in a position to compete for Pac-12 titles for years to come.
Kevin Foster, Santa Clara: As a sophomore, Foster sort of came out of nowhere to average 20.2 ppg and become one of the nation's top 3-point shooters.
Chris Gaston, Fordham: The Rams aren't any good, but the nation's leading returning rebounder (11.3 rpg) at least deserves a shout-out in this space.
Yancy Gates, Cincinnati: UC coach Mick Cronin said he'd be surprised if Gates wasn't one of the 10 names on the Big East preseason first team.
Rob Jones, Saint Mary's: Jones could be a double-double regular for the Gaels, and for Saint Mary's to win the WCC, Jones will have to be a star.
Doron Lamb, Kentucky: John Calipari says Lamb will be the Wildcats' best player. Just Coach Cal mind games, or the truth?
Meyers Leonard, Illinois: Leonard didn't contribute a whole lot as a freshman, but he was a hidden gem on the U.S. U-19 team in Latvia this summer. The Illini are expecting big things out of him.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: McCollum is the nation's leading returning scorer (21.8 ppg) and is in the top five in steals (2.5 spg). Oh, and he did that as a freshman. What more do you need to know?
Cameron Moore, UAB: The Blazers have been consistently good under Mike Davis and have had unheralded C-USA stars. Moore is the latest.
Toure' Murry, Wichita State: If the Shockers win the Missouri Valley over Creighton, a lot of the credit will end up going to the veteran Murry.
Brandon Paul, Illinois: Illini coach Bruce Weber was a bit surprised Paul didn't crack the top 50 on the Wooden list, given his overall importance to this team.
Ryan Pearson, George Mason: The Patriots are a trendy pick for the Top 25 and a lot of that has to do with the versatility of Pearson.
Damier Pitts, Marshall: The Thundering Herd are a real sleeper to gain an NCAA tourney berth out of Conference USA in large part because of Pitts.
Herb Pope, Seton Hall: Pope has come back from multiple life-threatening situations and has a real shot as a senior to put it all together and finally shine.
Terrence Ross, Washington: The Huskies can't be dismissed as a major player for the Pac-12 title, and if they win it, Ross will be a significant reason why.
Robert Sacre, Gonzaga: Sacre has matured into a solid post player, and that progress shows no signs of stopping as the Zags once again compete for the West Coast title.
Mike Scott, Virginia: If the sleeper Cavs mount a run to the NCAA tournament, the oft-injured Scott will be the reason why.
Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State: If Sidney is in shape and plays up to his potential, he has SEC Player of the Year potential and could be the difference between the Bulldogs making the NCAAs or NIT.
Chace Stanback, UNLV: Stanback's suspension to start the season is only one game, so that won't diminish his ability to lead the Rebels in their hunt for a Mountain West title.
Raymond Taylor, Florida Atlantic: FAU quietly won the Sun Belt East Division last season and Mike Jarvis' diminutive point guard was the catalyst behind the regular-season championship.
Hollis Thompson, Georgetown: If the Hoyas are to make the NCAA tournament again and be a pest in the upper half of the Big East, then Thompson needs a breakout season.
Kyle Weems, Missouri State: Doug McDermott is the one everyone is talking about in the Valley, but let's not forget that Weems is the reigning MVC Player of the Year. Too bad for the Bears he's their only returning starter.
Kendall Williams, New Mexico: The sophomore guard was the leading scorer in four postseason NIT games for the Lobos and should only get better with the addition of Australian Hugh Greenwood.
Dewayne Dedmon, USC: Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill firmly believes this JC transfer is an NBA talent who could dominate the post and average a double-double for SC.
Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State: The former UTEP big man is ready to have a bust-out season for a team that has serious bounce-back potential after a disappointing 2010-11 campaign.
Mike Rosario, Florida: The former Rutgers scoring guard finally has plenty of support around him and will put up numbers for a winner.
Rakim Sanders, Fairfield: The Boston College transfer should flourish after dropping down a level, and he should get coach Sydney Johnson another trip to the NCAA tourney. Johnson is beginning his first year at Fairfield after leading Princeton to the 2011 tourney.
Royce White, Iowa State: White is finally ready to be a star on the college scene after multiple transgressions at Minnesota.
Brandon Wood, Michigan State: The Spartans picked up a rare senior transfer (taking advantage of the graduate transfer rule) from Valparaiso who could be one of the best shooters in the Big Ten.
Tony Woods, Oregon: The embattled Woods arrived from Wake Forest after legal issues and has a chance to really shine as a double-double player for the first time in his career.
Bradley Beal, Florida: Beal has a chance to be a productive player in a frontcourt that has a vacuum after multiple seniors departed.
Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga: Coach Mark Few has been anticipating Bell's arrival for over a year now. He's expected to step in and deliver right away.
Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: The Cardinals fancy themselves a Big East title contender, and that's partly because they consider Blackshear a star in the making.
Jabari Brown, Oregon: Brown was the star of the Ducks' trip to Italy with his scoring prowess, and expect that to continue in the Pac-12.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: There is some question right now as to Carson's eligibility, but if he's good to go, the Sun Devils might become relevant in the Pac-12 again.
Erik Copes, George Mason: Copes was bound for George Washington before Karl Hobbs was fired; now he'll be a headline performer for the Patriots and first-year coach Paul Hewitt.
Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Davis has a chance to be the SEC Player of the Year and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, so expect him to be on the midseason list when freshmen are allowed.
Andre Drummond, Connecticut: He will be an immediate star and help lift the Huskies into the national title chase again. He's more than likely a future top-five pick in the NBA.
Myck Kabongo, Texas: Coach Rick Barnes has had quite a bit of success with big-time freshmen guards, and Kabongo is next in line.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: Gilchrist will be another star on what will be a headline team throughout the season.
Johnny O'Bryant, LSU: Coach Trent Johnson needs the Tigers to start trending upward again, and he has a shot with the arrival of the big man from Mississippi.
LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State: OSU is a bit of a mystery team in the Big 12, but the All-American from Dallas could push the Cowboys into contention.
Austin Rivers, Duke: Rivers will have the ball in his hands quite a bit and appears to be the next Duke star in a lengthy list of recognizable names.
Josiah Turner, Arizona: The Wildcats will win the Pac-12 regular-season title if Turner is as good as advertised.
Cody Zeller, Indiana: If coach Tom Crean is going to turn the Hoosiers into a relevant team this season, it will be because of Zeller and his impact in the Big Ten.
But there is no sense of urgency in the ACC, especially since the Big East for the moment is making Pitt and Syracuse stay for 27 months per the league's bylaws. The conference has plenty of time to figure out how to schedule its 14-team league.
So the attention now returns to the SEC with Monday's official announcement that Texas A&M will join the conference for the 2012-13 season. That gives the league 13 teams.
Should there be more?
Like Krzyzewski and Williams, Kentucky coach John Calipari would eventually like to see his conference get to 16.
"I don't think this stuff is done yet," Calipari said. "I've said for months that there may be four conferences with 16 or 18 teams each. But I can tell you that the SEC at 13, 14 or 16 is going to be stable. We're fine. If they're going to add, I'd like us to go and get Virginia Tech, Maryland and Missouri to go along with Texas A&M. We're not going to do anything at the expense of academics. You're also going to see basketball step up in the next five years in the SEC."
Calipari tweeted Monday that he thought the move to add the Aggies was tremendous for the league and new coach Billy Kennedy, a native of SEC country (Louisiana).
"Texas A&M is a great school academically, has a well-run athletic department and will fit well," Calipari said. "Their fan base is ridiculous, just like all of us. The SEC is different. The SEC is about schools with strong fan bases and geography. We want the markets. There is no buyout in the SEC because no one wants to leave."
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said he would have been fine with the SEC staying put at 12 teams, but he's not against the expansion.
"I like the simplicity of an even number and I'm not sure it was completely necessary," Stallings said. "I don't think we're finished seeing movement and if so, if we end up at 14 or 16, if that's what the commissioner's office said we need, then I'm fine with it. Our league isn't going anywhere. We're as stable as any league in college athletics and we have visionaries who run our league. If they think we're better suited to be at 14 or 16, then I'm OK with that."
The SEC will run into issues on further expansion since it would be hard to take a team from a state where there is already a conference member. The new ACC buyout of up to $20 million poses a problem, too. But the new markets in new states is what Calipari was talking about when he rattled off Missouri, Maryland and Virginia Tech. Still, it would be extremely difficult to pry the Terrapins away from playing Duke and North Carolina every year or the Hokies from rival Virginia after Tech expended a lot of political capital with the Cavaliers to not block the school's move from the Big East to the ACC eight years ago.
The SEC's current number of 13 will be a scheduling issue for football and basketball. Football still has divisions, which is a matter unto itself as the league decides what to do with the Aggies and how to handle an unbalanced schedule.
The SEC got rid of divisions for men's basketball for this season, but the scheduling format still mirrors the football East-West split with each team playing its old side twice and the other once for the 2011-12 season.
Stallings was on an SEC committee to determine a 12-team, no-division schedule for 2012-13. The consensus was to have everyone play each other once (11 games), with seven more games coming from doubling up against league opponents to get to 18 league games. The SEC currently plays 16. The same formula is expected to be applied to a 13-team, no-division SEC next season. The Atlantic 10, which has 14 teams, has a format of playing only 16 league games with every team playing each other at least once, three teams twice.
The question for the SEC will be which rivalries are protected in a doubling-up scenario. There are a few natural ones to protect like Alabama-Auburn, Ole Miss-Mississippi State and Vanderbilt-Tennessee with newer ones like Kentucky-Florida and maybe more traditional ones like Tennessee-Kentucky or Florida-Georgia kept, as well. There could be a need to ensure Texas A&M plays LSU twice as well, or perhaps twice with Arkansas, a former rival from the Southwest Conference.
Whatever the case, Stallings doesn't seem all that worried.
"I think we just have to have an open mind going forward," he said. "We'll come to the best concept relative to 13."
• When I was with Minnesota in Anaheim at the 76 Classic, I never got the sense that Royce White was going to return to the team. White, who announced recently that he's leaving Minnesota because of his legal troubles, had a much different case than Trevor Mbakwe in that there seemed to be only one side.
The Gophers had a hard time defending the shoplifting charge and were starting to really question if it made sense for White to be a part of the program. Mbakwe, who is currently suspended pending an assault case, always had a much better chance of joining the team if he is proven innocent. Minnesota coach Tubby Smith doesn't put up with much and he wasn't about to disrupt his program if there was no need. White's announcement that he's no longer a part of the program was likely a preemptive move on his part, before a decision was officially made for him by the Gophers.
• Boston College's plan was to bring in Brady Heslip early so he could redshirt and learn Al Skinner's system. Heslip has already graduated from Burlington, Ontario's Nelson High but has been playing at New Hampton Prep (N.H.). Skinner announced Thursday that Heslip was joining the squad. He will technically be eligible to play this month but unless there is a glaring need for a sharp shooter -- which there is -- the Eagles will likely continue to redshirt him. But if the 6-2 guard has a quick learning curve and is knocking down shots then the Eagles might be tempted to bring him off his redshirt.
• The Bob Cousy Award named its candidates for the honor for the top point guard in the country. Harvard's Jeremy Lin was not one of them. According to at least one member of the committee Lin wasn't nominated by the Crimson. But he will be added. He should. Lin is one of the top point guards in the country.
• I'm not sure you could get any basketball coach among Pitt's Jamie Dixon, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Rutgers' Fred Hill, Nebraska's Doc Sadler or Missouri's Mike Anderson to say they would want to leave their current conference and go to the Big Ten. Sources close to the situation in the Big East claim there is mutual interest among the Big Ten and Rutgers. That may be the case, and it is so early in the process, but I still don't get how Rutgers makes sense. I don't see the Big Ten penetrating the New York media market when Rutgers can't consistently do it. Rutgers basketball in the Big Ten would be a disaster. It's barely surviving in the Big East. Memphis would have to be the choice for the Big East if it loses a member. Central Florida is fool's gold. Memphis' faithful care about the Tigers more than any other prospective school's fan base. It's not even close. The Florida infatuation is limited to the big three in the state -- Florida, Florida State and Miami.
• There is no reason to be optimistic that Renardo Sidney will play for Mississippi State this season. The NCAA will conduct more interviews next week with the Sidney family. The key thing here is this: The NCAA is under no legal pressure to clear Sidney to play. Sidney's legal team won't sue to get a court injunction because Mississippi State won't play him without an NCAA clearance and run the risk of one day having to vacate games.
• Two of most inspirational stories so far this fall have been BYU's Dave Rose coming back from a rare pancreatic cancerous tumor and the graduation of Duquesne shooting victim Sam Ashaolu. I'm no longer a voting member of the United States Basketball Writers Association, but both are deserving honorees of the Most Courageous Award.
• Penn may flirt with current Siena and former Quaker coach Fran McCaffery but it might be considered a lateral move. McCaffery has told me in the past how much he loves his gig. Penn is arguably the best job in the Ivy League but Siena is the top job -- with scholarships -- in the MAAC.
• As much as Siena, Niagara and Rider got the early-season pub, the best team in the MAAC may end up being Fairfield. Coach Ed Cooley was raving in the preseason about his combo of Yorel Hawkins and Derek Needham, both averaging in the mid-teens.
• The A-10 is deep, but maybe too deep. There is no question that Charlotte, Rhode Island, Temple, Dayton, Richmond, La Salle, Xavier and Saint Joseph's have the capability to beat each other up and to sleep on Duquesne, George Washington and Saint Louis in league play would be a mistake. The problem for the A-10 may come if the top four to five teams have four or five losses.
• Watching high school senior Jared Sullinger play Thursday night must make Ohio State melt. The Buckeyes could desperately use Sullinger -- now. If Evan Turner comes back from his fracture in his back to play next season then the Buckeyes -- with Sullinger -- should be in line to compete for the Big Ten title and make a deep NCAA run. Sullinger holds the ball like an oversized grapefruit, can handle the ball and post up. He's everything the Buckeyes need now to shore up the middle, assuming they get Turner back.
• It's amazing that UCLA at Notre Dame Saturday has no pregame buzz. That speaks volumes about the season the Bruins are having and the drop the Irish suffered after losing at home to Loyola Marymount.
• I did say on a preseason Big East show on ESPNU that West Virginia would win the league by two games. That was before Syracuse emerged as not only a league title threat but a national championship threat as well. Still, I do like the Mountaineers quite a bit. Maybe not as much as the Orange right now, but West Virginia will continue to improve and the addition of Turkish center Deniz Kilicli in early February could be a huge boost, filling a necessary big man void.
• Good to see Mike Davis at ease at UAB. Watching Davis coach the Blazers to the rout of Cincinnati might have been the most comfortable I've seen Davis in a decade.
• Seriously, I would not be surprised if Washington State won the Pac-10. Washington and Cal should win the league but there is no reason to have complete faith in either one of those squads. No one in the league has been as dominant as Klay Thompson at Wazzu.
• Tasmin Mitchell came back to LSU for his senior season to be a leader and a productive player. He hasn't disappointed. Mitchell has been Mr. Everything and so far, averaging nearly 17 points and almost nine boards a game for the Tigers. He had a 24-point and 18-rebound game for the Tigers against SE Louisiana.
• I'm not sure I've seen a player come back from major knee surgery (ACL) as well as Ole Miss' Chris Warren. He has been superb, averaging 19 a game for the Rebels. The two Ole Miss-Mississippi State games should be dandies.
• Coach of the year so far? If you don't have Northwestern's Bill Carmody on the list then you're missing something. Carmody has done an outstanding job putting the Wildcats at 8-1 without Kevin Coble (foot injury and done for the year). The Wildcats looked toast after losing at home to Butler and now are cruising with wins over Iowa State, Notre Dame and NC State. None of those wins may be NCAA-caliber but the Wildcats will be in contention for a bid from this point forward.