At some point, the LSU men will reach a point in their schedule when they might be able to ever so slightly exhale, take a look back and take stock of what they’ve learned and how far they’ve come.
That point certainly doesn’t arrive Wednesday, though. Because if the Tigers let up on the accelerator at all when they visit Mississippi State, any progress they’ve made could evaporate quickly.
LSU (12-7, 2-3 SEC) heads to Starkville to take on the 18th-ranked Bulldogs (16-4, 3-2) at 7 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum.
State is the second of at least three straight ranked teams the Tigers will face in a challenging stretch to wrap up January. And on the heels of a 76-64 loss at Florida, things certainly aren’t easing up.
“Mississippi State, whew!” LSU coach Trent Johnson said. “A lot better and really talented.
“They are very talented, very talented and are playing very well. Another league game, another challenge.”
That’s an all-too-familiar refrain for LSU in this recent run of tricky tests, but the Bulldogs present a different challenge than the Tigers encountered vs. Florida last Saturday.
While the Gators’ strength was a loaded back court and a knack for hitting 3-pointers, MSU is more balanced with perhaps the best one-two inside punch in the SEC along with the league’s most veteran and productive point guard.
Forwards Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney average 16.4 and 10.5 points, respectively. Moultrie, a 6-foot-11 transfer from UTEP, is snaring 11.2 rebounds a game, making him the only SEC player averaging a double-double.
“I’m not so sure there is a better player in terms of being efficient and productivity than Moultrie,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of guys in our sport that are athletic or great athletes. What he is, is a great athlete but he is (also) a great basketball player with skills. Then when you put that with 6-foot-11 about 250, and he has a nice edge to him.”
Moultrie also has a talented, albeit erratic, wing man in Sidney.
Though he has been up and down since he arrived, the 6-10, 285-pound Sidney has played well off Moultrie, in part Johnson said because the pressure is off Sidney to be the Bulldogs’ only inside threat. The task of slowing Sidney down falls to seniors Storm Warren and Malcolm White, who give up a lot of height and bulk but can counter with quickness.
“He’s in a class by himself,” Warren said of Sidney. “I’ve played a lot of big guys, but nobody with his size and skill combined. He’s bigger than me, but I’m quicker than him and I have to use that to my advantage. I can’t let him outmuscle me. He’s wider and I can’t let him seal me off and get around me. I have to use my skills to get around him.
“I know it’s a big challenge. Your body feels it after you bang around with him.”
As good as the Bulldogs are up front, it’s not as if the LSU guards can relax. Far from it, in fact.
State senior Dee Bost is the veteran point guard, averaging 16.4 points and 4.4 assists a contest overall. He leads the Bulldogs with 19 points a game in SEC play. He’s joined in the backcourt by freshman Rodney Hood (11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds a game), whom Johnson tagged as one of the best freshmen in the SEC.
“They have great guards, guys we obviously have to defend well,” LSU’s Andre Stringer said. “Dee Bost is one of the best guards in the SEC and he really runs the team well.”
No argument from Johnson, who counters with his talented freshman Anthony Hickey, who is having a solid rookie campaign, but is also still learning on the job.
“The thing with Dee that he does the best is that he competes at a high level,” Johnson said. “He has courage, he’s always making the big play or the big shot, he’s a winner. You look at some of the games they’ve had this year and when things have been going bad, he just basically says ‘OK, I'm going to make this play.’ That’s what he does. He’s a winner, he shoots the 3, he runs the team and he’s a really good defender. For me, the biggest compliment you can give a point guard is he wins. That’s all that he has done since he has been there: He’s won.”
As talented as Mississippi State is with its starting crew, the Tigers could have an edge in terms of depth.
Bost, Hood and Moultrie all rank in the top five in the SEC in minutes played with 34 or more a game, and the Bulldogs’ eight-man rotation took a hit last week when freshman Deville Smith banged his head. Smith is still battling headaches and dizziness and will miss a third straight game.
That leaves sophomores Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis as the only reserves who have seen extensive time this season.
Meanwhile, it’s likely LSU could get a boost from the return of freshman big man Johnny O’Bryant, who has missed all five SEC games since surgery on Jan. 5 to fix a broken left hand. He went through a workout Tuesday when the team got to Starkville and was given the green light to return.
The 6-8, 262-pound O’Bryant gives Johnson another beefy body to combat Moultrie and Sidney. O’Bryant is averaging 7.9 points and 6.2 points a game and makes his college debut in his home state after sitting for 2½ frustrating weeks of being idle.
“No question: Put him right back out there,” Johnson said about playing O’Bryant, adding that the freshman has grown frustrated because all he’s been able to do is run and condition.
“It hit a high level in the Florida game. It’s bothering him, but it really bothered him that night.”
Now, as long as O’Bryant can handle whatever pain he absorbs from playing with the hand wrapped, his frustration should end and the Tigers add more depth to a bench that averages 19 points a game.
And in the middle of a tough-to-navigate stretch, that certainly can’t hurt.
“We’re taking it one game at a time, but it’s definitely been tough,” Warren said. “Right now, all we have to focus on is what we have to do (Wednesday) to have our best chance to beat Mississippi State.”
CHALK TALK: LSU at No. 18 Mississippi State