Exactly how many cupcake games can a team fill up on without repercussions? For LSU, it’s a full baker’s dozen by Christmas complete with descending numbered candles on top. And a puffed-up stat line by All-America forward Angel Reese that won’t collapse, but will surely sink down in the conference schedule.
The Tigers (9-0) are playing one of the easiest schedules of any team that has even sniffed a spot in the first five weeks of the Associated Press Top 25 poll this season. The eye test shows it's a breeze as does RealTime RPI, which lists their strength of schedule as 236th in Division I.
That's worse than all but two teams in either the AP poll or the first 25 teams in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). LSU has moved up to No. 11 in the AP poll and is No. 5 in the first release of the NET, which is used to sort teams based on their resume for the tournament.
The collective scoff heard 'round Twitter said it all. Yet, AP rankings and even NET mean very little. Coaches don't schedule tough competition for the ranking alone, they schedule them for valuable experience that will prove pivotal in March. The early question mark on LSU is if avoiding challenging matchups will hurt it in the long haul.
Numbers behind LSU’s nonconference schedule
The LSU team page at Her Hoop Stats is a festive showing of green for ranking in the top of nearly every offensive and defensive category. The Tigers started the season with five 100-point games and averaged 96.8 points over nine wins, second behind Utah's 97 ppg through a strength of schedule ranked 116th. LSU is winning by an average margin of 45.7 points.
Its closest games were its most recent ones: a 63-55 (+8) win against Southeastern Louisiana and a 85-72 win (+13) against Tulane. They are the only teams on their schedule so far that hit better than 36% of their shot attempts against the Tigers.
Kim Mulkey, in her second season coaching LSU, credited the effort of in-state opponents. She also noted the importance of having close games during her radio show days later.
“Today was a good day in practice because when you’re in tight games, you’ve got to have five kids on that floor and they’re all on the same page and they all know how to execute a play,” Mulkey said. “Well, we were just pretty bad last night. Four would do it and one wouldn’t. And it would be at times out of a timeout where I just drew it up on the board. And four would go out there and one wouldn’t.
“That’s just a lack of focus. That may be lack of not having any close games where you have to execute. You can’t just go out there and just freelance.”
The early part of their nonconference schedule gave players a lot of room to "freelance." They're so lopsided that Her Hoop Stats listed four of their games as a 100% likely win. Six more of LSU's nonconference schedule are above 97.9%. For comparison, South Carolina has two surefire ones and three between 41% (UConn) to 66% (Maryland).
LSU’s early blowouts were against Bellarmine (+75), Mississippi Valley (+70), Western Carolina (+73), Houston Christian (+54), Northwestern State (+55), George Mason (+28) and UAB (+35). Of the nine opponents, only Tulane (+14.6) and UAB (+3.5) have a positive win margin. Five rank in the bottom third offensively this season and UAB and Tulane are the only offenses in the top 100, per Her Hoop Stats.
None are standouts defensively, either. Tulane allows 60.6 points per game, the only school LSU has played so far that ranks top 100 at 95th. For perspective, South Carolina has allowed 47.6 points per game against a SOS ranked fifth and having already played Maryland (74.6 ppg), Stanford (85.5 ppg) and UCLA (73.9 ppg).
It will be marginally better moving forward after LSU hosts New Orleans, a team in the bottom third offensively (56.5 ppg) and defensively (74.8 ppg), on Sunday. Next up is Lamar, which ranks middle third at 61 ppg and allowing 63.2 ppg. Montana State is also a middling team at 66.5/66.9.
LSU’s first Power Five matchup is against Oregon State (71.9/56.8) in Maui before SEC play begins Dec. 29 at No. 21 Arkansas (10-0). The SEC schedule will be tough, but No. 1 South Carolina and Arkansas are currently the only ranked teams on LSU’s schedule.
Why LSU’s schedule is weak
Mulkey, who led Baylor to two national championships as head coach, took over at LSU after the program went 9-13 in the 2020-21 season. That record, though it followed a stretch of seasons in which LSU won two-thirds of its games in three of four seasons, is why the schedule is weak.
"We inherited a program that won nine basketball games, and if you think I am going to over-schedule before I know what I have, that would be a terrible mistake," Mulkey said last month, via Nola.com.
Scheduling is a complicated endeavor. There are conflicts with the arena, campus events and in regards to other teams’ arenas and campus schedule. Schools might also decline the offer for competition, travel or other issues. Opponents are set in advance, which can be problematic in an age of the transfer portal and players immediately eligible to play.
Mulkey said their schedule was completed before LSU brought in its transfers, headlined by the 6-foot-3 Reese from Maryland.
“The nonconference schedule was done long before we had Angel Reese and all these transfers coming in … we are on the phone now to improve the nonconference schedule,” Mulkey said.
Mulkey also added 6-4 forward LaDazhia Williams (Missouri/South Carolina), 5-10 guard Jasmine Carson (West Virginia) and 5-8 guard Kateri Poole (Ohio State) from the portal. The freshman class is led by McDonald’s All-American Flau’jae Johnson.
How it’s impacting Angel Reese
Reese immediately became the No. 1 prospect in the transfer portal when she entered after averaging 17.7 points and 10.6 rebounds a game as a sophomore at Maryland. She was the first Terrapin to average a double-double since 1975. The Baltimore native was the No. 2 overall player in the 2020 class and the top-ranked wing by ESPN.
Through Thursday’s games, Reese and BYU’s Lauren Gustin lead the nation with nine double-doubles in as many games. She’s averaging 23.1 ppg, ranking seventh, and leads Division I on the boards with 14.2 rebounds per game. Reese is averaging a career-high 30.3 minutes per game.
No one is doubting her talent and the way she fits in with this LSU roster Mulkey has constructed. But there is also no doubt those numbers are inflated with the lack of solid competition she has faced. It seems fair to believe her numbers will drop a little come the end of the month when those double- and triple-teams are coming from the likes of bigger, stronger, more skilled players. The SEC is physical.
Mulkey said on her show they sat down after Reese, who played nearly every minute in the closer games against Southeastern Louisiana and Tulane, got a little fatigued and had a shot blocked.
“We watched it on film and discussed it. Why is that happening when you’re a kid that can go up and slap the backboard with two hands?” Mulkey said. “We got to get better in practice to make her understand. That size athlete is blocking a shot last night, wait until you go against some of them in the SEC.”
South Carolina center Aliyah Boston, the reigning player of the year, did not see a large drop-off from her nonconference play to SEC games last season. Her scoring clip was 17 ppg versus 16.7 ppg in SEC, though her efficiency dropped from 57.5% to 52.2%, and on the glass it went from 10.1 to 13.1 rpg. But Boston is a tough comparison because head coach Dawn Staley schedules tough competition that rewards them in the end.
Reese will still be on watchlists and honors as the SEC competition gets underway. And LSU, picked to finish third in the SEC, could make it to April. But the real, true look at her as a national player contender and LSU as a title contender won't come until better competition does.