LSU presents a threat to UNC

Staff WriterMarch 21, 2009 

Like a lot of folks, Jeff Lebo was surprised when the NCAA Tournament selection committee slotted Louisiana State, then 26-7 and the Southeastern Conference regular-season winner, as a No. 8 seed.

That's only part of it.

The Tigers, with conference player of the year Marcus Thornton, were placed in the South Regional and shipped off to face underrated Butler in Greensboro, followed by a near-certain game against No. 1 seed North Carolina in the second round.

"I think every coach in the SEC was more like shocked than just surprised," said Lebo, a former star guard at Carolina and now the head coach at Auburn.

"I don't know whether you'd call it lack of respect or what, but I know LSU is a very good team. Really good. I think they should have been much higher than an eight."

Lebo's Auburn team, which faced Tulsa on Friday in a second-round NIT game, was one of just three SEC opponents to defeat LSU in the regular season. With or without Tar Heels playmaker Ty Lawson in today's 5:45 p.m. game, Lebo believes his alma mater will be thoroughly tested.

"LSU is a team without a great deal of size, but they are really quick and have a lot of versatile players," he said. "You won't find many teams tougher to defend in the halfcourt.

"But Carolina's a great team with a definite height advantage over almost anyone they face. That should help. Maybe they'll be able to wear LSU down and maybe get them in some foul trouble. But it's not going to be easy."

Dealing with the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Thornton, a senior, will be the biggest problem for Roy Williams and his staff. Lebo said taller, equally quick defenders have presented Thornton with the few struggles he has had.

"In the game we beat them, we double-teamed Marcus a lot. We had some success. But you have to take into account that game was played at our place and anytime you choose to double-team a player, you're probably leaving someone else open, and he's a good passer."

If Williams chooses to go big on Thornton, the likely defensive assignment would go to 6-6 forward Danny Green, meaning 6-4 guard Wayne Ellington would draw forward Garrett Temple (6-6) of the Tigers.

The logical match for Thornton would be Ellington, whose defensive play has been spotty at times. Then, there's the matter of Thornton's diverse offensive range. He's apt to shoot a 3-pointer from the wing on one possession, roam the baseline or the corners on the next, followed by a lane split on a third. At times, Tigers coach Trent Johnson will move 6-1 sophomore Bo Spencer to a wing and turn primary ball-handling duty over to Thornton.

"He's just a day's work for anyone trying to stay with him," Lebo said.

And inside, where Carolina should have its biggest advantage, Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson will have to be careful with the Tigers' Steve Johnson, a 6-11 senior lightweight with exceptional quickness, agility and some serious hops. The roster lists Johnson at 210 pounds.

caultontudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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