Entering the Christmas break, Johnny Jones' Tigers are 7-2 in his first year guiding the program he grew up with and played in as a collegiate.
LSU has stayed true to the plan Jones laid out when he accepted the job, a plan that entailed staying uptempo and scoring plenty of points. Through nine games, the Tigers are averaging 77.2 points per game, a noticeable spike from the 65.4 points-per-game average Trent Johnson's bunch finished with a season ago.
Here's the book on where the Tigers have been, are now and are going as the team breaks for several days surrounding Christmas.
Where They Have Been
Most recently LSU has been on the road.
For the first time in the 2012-13 campaign, beginning Dec. 14, the Tigers have had to toil away from the PMAC. And, after getting off to a 6-0 start at home, Jones' Bayou Bengals dropped two of three on the road, falling at Boise State (89-70) on Dec. 14 and Marquette (84-80) on Saturday while winning at UC Irvine (66-60) in between on Dec. 18.
The game against Marquette, even in a loss, may ultimately provide LSU with a certain degree of confidence in the long run. The Tigers got behind the eight ball early in Milwaukee and, at one point, trailed by 21 before staging a methodical comeback in which LSU actually led by a point on national television (ESPNU).
Junior guard Andre Stringer posted his second straight solid performance, scoring 20 points on a crisp 6-of-10 shooting effort from downtown. Saturday marked the fourth consecutive game started by Stringer, who Jones relies on to provide an outside touch for the Tigers.
Also submitting big days in the Bradley Center were senior guard Charles Carmouche (15 points, 10 assists) and sophomore point guard Anthony Hickey, who filled the stat sheet – putting up 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals against only one turnover – while coming off the bench.
Hickey, playing in his third game after coming back from an indefinite suspension, logged 32 minutes against the Golden Eagles. So Jones may not mind starting freshman Corban Collins at the point, but it's clear he's going to give the lion's share of the minutes to Hickey, still among the nation's leaders in steals.
Here's the starting lineup Jones has gone with the past two games: Collins, Stringer, Carmouche, Johnny O'Bryant and Andrew Del Piero. Aside from Hickey, Jones' primary sub off the bench has been Shavon "Sugar" Coleman, the team's leader in scoring average (14.4 ppg) and second on the team in rebounds (7.8 rpg) and blocks (1.2 bpg).
Perhaps the most interesting development in the Marquette game, from a game-plan standpoint, is that LSU actually clawed back into the contest in the second half via a zone defense. As much as Trent Johnson hated allowing his teams to slink away from man defense, Johnny Jones abhors the notion even more.
And yet it helped spur the Tigers on Saturday afternoon.
Time will tell if Jones swallows his pride in certain situations and lets LSU back into the zone, but it's clear he has the horses on the perimeter to cause some havoc from that set. He also has a 7-3 center who, in my opinion, is tailor-made to protect the basket within a zone concept, eliminating the need for him to try and guard more athletic big men straight up.
Finally, here are some pertinent averages for LSU players to date:
Shavon Coleman: 14.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.2 bpg (52.5% FG)
Johnny O'Bryant: 13.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg (50.6% FG)
Andre Stringer: 12.2 ppg, 2.2 apg, 1.2 spg (41.4% 3s)
Anthony Hickey: 10.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.5 spg
Charles Carmouche: 9.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.2 spg
Corban Collins: 5.2 ppg, 1.2 rpg (60.0% 3s)
Andrew Del Piero: 4.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg (72.7% FG)
Where They Are
The Tigers are tied for second in the SEC heading into a four-day Christmas break.
Only Missouri has fewer losses in the conference at 10-1. There are two other SEC teams, Ole Miss and Florida, which currently join LSU with two losses. Other than that, everyone in the league has at least three losses, including mighty Kentucky (which has played a notably harder schedule than LSU to date) and Texas A&M (which just lost to Southern).
LSU has two wins at this point which can be considered legitimate feathers in its cap – at home against Seton Hall (72-67 in a come-from-behind effort) in the SEC/Big East Challenge and at UC Irvine.
From an injury standpoint, the Tigers appear pretty fresh and fortunate at the end of December. Carmouche tweaked a knee during the Chattanooga game Dec. 11, but he's been back since and had his best game in an LSU uniform against Marquette. Stringer flew over the scorer's table during the Irvine contest, giving him a nice facial scar which he's taken to calling his "face tattoo," but it hasn't forced him out of action. And, perhaps most importantly of all, O'Bryant hasn't had a relapse of his strained calf episode in the last 6-7 games.
Where They Are Going
The team will pick back up when it hosts Houston Baptist on Dec. 28. I believe the Tigers will re-convene the day after Christmas to get in two full days of practice before getting back in the PMAC for that game.
After that LSU gets an eight-day break before welcoming Bethune-Cookman to Baton Rouge on Jan. 5. From that point on, it's all SEC action.
The Tigers will begin what is now an 18-game conference slate by traveling to Auburn Jan. 9 before coming back home to take on Florida on Jan. 12.
From a big picture view, if the Tigers are going to take advantage of an easier portion of the conference schedule, it will have to happen the first few weeks of January. Throwing the Florida game out, LSU plays Auburn (away), South Carolina (home), Georgia (away) and Texas A&M (home) during that span. Those are all winnable games for Jones and LSU if the chips fall right on a given night.
After that stretch, however, the climb gets noticeably more uphill.
LSU travels to Kentucky Jan. 26, hosts Missouri Jan. 30 and then gets a little bit of a breather playing at Mississippi State before tackling Vanderbilt and Alabama in a four-day period.
Jones told reporters before the Marquette game that he wasn't going to just hand the starting point guard reins back over to Hickey without the player showing he wants it and can earn it. If LSU is truly going to compete in SEC play, it will be because Hickey toed the line and stepped up to reclaim that role as team and floor leader.
I believe if Hickey is able to do that, this LSU team – which has been better than many (including me) thought before the season – has a real chance of winning seven or maybe even eight games in the conference.
The Tigers' showing through nine games has proven the ceiling for LSU in year one under Jones is a bit higher than expected.
Status Check: LSU basketball
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