When this basketball season got off the ground back in November, one of the major changes for the LSU men was new depth, something the Tigers lacked in two seasons of misery.
A roster replenished by a talented three-man freshman class and transfer Justin Hamilton gave fourth-year coach Trent Johnson more versatility and talent than he’s had at his disposal since his debut season in Baton Rouge.
That depth has been tested already this season when guard Andre Stringer missed nearly a month and five games after a fainting spell.
Now with the heart of the season at hand, LSU will have to stretch that manpower to new limits when Ole Miss visits the Maravich Assembly Center.
The Tigers (10-4) and Rebels (10-4) tip off the SEC season at 12:45 p.m.
LSU will be without starting forward Johnny O’Bryant, who broke his left hand in a non-contact practice drill, and senior reserve Malcolm White, who is attending his grandmother’s funeral. O’Bryant had surgery Thursday and could miss 4-6 weeks.
Stringer is back for the second straight game, but the Tigers’ front court will have to be shuffled minus the 6-foot-9, 260-pound O’Bryant and 6-9, 220-pound White – who spent his first two seasons at Ole Miss.
Sophomore Jalen Courtney could also see time at both guard and forward.
“The good thing about it is we have been prepared for this in terms of we lost Andre when he was playing extremely well,” Johnson said. “I just did not think we would be in a situation where we would lose two (players at the same time). This group is pretty resilient. … This is just part of college basketball.”
The Rebels are dealing with their own shuffled deck.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy dismissed three players earlier this week, including leading scorer (11.6 points per game) Dundecrous Nelson, for allegedly failing multiple drug tests. Forward Murphy Holloway has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain, but could be back in action against LSU.
The good news for the Tigers is that Stringer held up well in his return to action Monday, logging 24 minutes and scoring 8 points. Johnson said Stringer and Ralston Turner, who is nursing a sore ankle, are both good to go.
And while losing a starting forward and a key reserve up front is never good, LSU is better equipped to withstand the injuries because of Hamilton (12.3 points and 6.9 rebounds a game), who has emerged as one of the biggest surprises of the SEC this season.
Regardless of what the Tigers get offensively from whoever plays, the key – as it has been all season – will be LSU’s defense.
Eight opponents in a row have failed to score over 59 points and the Tigers enter the game with the SEC’s second best 3-point field-goal defense (29.4%).
That defense has helped LSU turn things around from back-to-back 11-victory seasons. The Tigers haven’t been spectacular on offense, but defense and strong work on the backboards (40.1 per game, SEC-best 15 offensive boards a contest) has allowed Johnson’s team to stay close in every game.
“I think they’re playing well,” Kennedy said. “They’ve always guarded and been fundamentally sound. I think Hamilton has allowed them to get over the hump by giving them a constant scoring presence close to the basket.”
Like the Tigers, the Rebels have been a balanced team this season and have relied on defense as a foundation. Ole Miss is giving up 63.5 points a game and has held five foes under 60 points.
The Rebels beat SMU 50-48 in their last outing, ending a three-game swoon in late December against Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee and Dayton.
Ole Miss has Johnson’s attention, though, especially with a restructured lineup.
Add in the fact that the Tigers have lost 27 of their last 32 SEC games, and there’s plenty of reason for LSU to have concerns as it embarks on the second leg of the season.
"We are going to continue to grind,” Johnson said. “This is a different team. This is a different year."