FAYETTEVILLE - Repeatedly rejected on the road, these Arkansas Razorbacks now must build a bridge over troubled Waters at home.
Freshman flash Tremont Waters, whose deep threes with 12 seconds and one second left at Texas A&M overcame a 68-63 lead to beat the Aggies, 69-68 last Saturday, leads the LSU Tigers, 10-4 overall 1-1 in the SEC, into Walton Arena against Arkansas, 11-4, 1-2, tonight.
Tip-off is 8 p.m. and televised by the SEC Network.
Little guard Waters, just 5-11 but averaging a big 17.4 points, 6.0 assists and 2.4 steals, and new Coach Will Wade have made a big difference in a Tigers team that last season floundered 10-16 overall, 2-16 in the SEC yet sported freshman All-American Ben Simmons, the No. 1 NBA draft choice now starring with the Philadelphia 76ers, and this season returns as seniors talented big men Duop Reath and Aaron Epps and underclassmen lettermen guards Skylar Mays and Brandon Sampson and adding junior college transfer Daryl Edwards.
LSU beat Michigan in nonconference and also beat the same Houston Cougars that annihilated Arkansas. In the SEC the Tigers nearly upset Kentucky, eventually losing 74-71 at home in Baton Rouge before Waters’ late threes stunned preseason SEC favorite Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.
“LSU has really surprised some people but not surprised me because they were young and good last year and are better this year,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said at his Miked Up radio show Monday night at Sassy’s Red House restaurant. “They’ve got a new coach and new enthusiasm.”
And of course that new guard all over the the place in SEC stats. Though under 6-feet, Waters even has blocked two shots and rebounds at a 3.6 clip.
“Tremont, he’s leading our league in assists, he’s leading in steals and he’s third in scoring,” Anderson said. “He helps a guy like Epps. Epps’ scoring average (now 10.2 and averaging 6.2 rebounds) went up six points from last year. The Reath kid (12.6 points and 5.5 rebounds) is very tough. The Mays kid (12.1 points and 4.1 rebounds) played well against us last year.”
So LSU surprises the pundits picking Tigers at or near the bottom of the SEC just like, Anderson reminded media Monday, those picked at or near the bottom Mississippi State and Auburn teams that beat Arkansas last week in Starkville, Miss. and Auburn, Ala.
“Somebody asked me the same thing about Mississippi State,” Anderson replied to a Monday question about LSU surprising. “Somebody asked me about Auburn as well. I wonder who picked those guys … It’s very, very competitive in our league and we’ve seen it in nonconference play and they’ve picked up in conference play.”
Wade, the former Virginia Commonwealth coach, certainly seems to have picked up LSU’s pace.
“Give Will Wade credit for coming and getting those guys continuing to be on the same page,” Anderson said. “I just think the Waters kid has really helped them. Epps is playing out of his mind. They’ve got three guys scoring in double figures but they’ve got other guys that are capable. When you look at Sampson, he was a double-figures scorer for them last year. The Mays kid is playing well. They’ve got some talent on that team.”
And freshman Waters enhances it better than Wade could have imagined.
“He's made a major impact,” Wade told Monday’s SEC Coaches/Media teleconference. “Obviously people knew he was good coming out of high school (Notre Dame High in New Haven, Ct.). But I think we'd all be lying if we said we knew he'd be this good. Tre's got that gene and he's got that trait where when things get a little tough and things get a little bit harder or when it's time to be great at the end of the game he's just got that 'it' factor.”
Wade reminded media that Arkansas has some it factor players, too in senior guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, 33 and 28 points in Arkansas’ SEC season opening overtime victory over Tennessee at Walton, and its own freshman flash, 6-11 rookie Daniel Gafford of El Dorado averaging 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and blocking 30 shots.
“Big challenge ahead with Arkansas,” Wade said. “Their great guard play and the big kid down low [Gafford] has really, really progressed throughout the year as well.”
Anderson said the Hogs must play vastly better defense than they’ve played thus far in SEC games. He also said he must rely more on his reserve guards to keep Macon, Barford and fellow senior starting guard Anton Beard better refreshed and for Gafford to play smarter regarding foul trouble and to be spelled frequently by 6-9 senior big man Trey Thompson.