Johnny Jones' crew rode a wave of late momentum, including four straight made free throws from Anthony Hickey in the waning moments, to beat Missouri 77-71 in the PMAC Tuesday night. LSU followed that effort with another tough setback on the road, falling 82-80 to Alabama inside Coleman Coliseum, which saw the Bayou Bengals' momentous comeback flat-line as Hickey's floater/prayer was blocked as time expired.
LSU now stands at 12-6 overall, 3-3 in SEC play.
Below I provide two quick hitters on the Tigers, highlighting the latest and most important team news and trends on the court.
Keep an eye out for this weekly feature on Sunday nights through the end of the 2013-14 season.
1. Mediocre a hard label to shake for LSU since OSC
Anthony Hickey has been fearless in taking "onions" shots since he arrived on campus, and he's made his fair share in two-and-a-half seasons. One such make came with about seven seconds left in regulation on Dec. 1 in Orlando, where Hickey's three went down for his first points of the game and LSU secured an overtime session versus Butler, five extra minutes the Tigers used to score what was a big RPI win at the time.
Does this mean it's Hickey's fault? Hardly. The fact that must be faced at this point is that while LSU possesses a few elite pieces and a number of other very good players, the sum of the parts is pretty mediocre to date. Only the elite teams in the SEC (and, yes, there are really only two) are winning on the road consistently. LSU has been in position to sink Ole Miss in Oxford and Alabama in Tuscaloosa in successive weeks, but the Tigers have fallen short both times, heaping immense pressure on themselves in the remaining 12 SEC games for any kind of realistic shot at the postseason.
All of this dips back into what was discussed in this space a week ago, namely that LSU struggles to get contributions from the same core players game in and game out. The latest example: After turning in three nice performances in a row coming off the bench, Jarell Martin posted lines of five points and four rebounds (vs. Missouri) and six points, six rebounds and four turnovers (at Alabama) this week. Some teams thrive under the umbrella of "any guy can get it done any night." I'll continue to make the argument it's hurting the 2013-14 Tigers. They're struggling to find a consistent offensive identity.
Another argument I'll make: The difference between great and also-ran in the SEC is razor-thin this season. If both of Hickey's last-ditch attempts in SEC play connect, LSU is 14-4, 5-1, and ranked third in the league. But they didn't. And the Tigers aren't. They're bogged down with the rest of the 3-3 SEC teams in the land of mediocre.
2. Pressure defense agrees with this team in a big way
If you saw the second half of the Alabama game, this needs no further explanation. LSU was able to erase a 19-point deficit in the program's designated House of Horrors (Coleman Coliseum), and the biggest reason without question was the use of full-court pressure and trapping, intense halfcourt defense.
First, let's consider why the concept of pressure defense fits the Tigers' personnel so well. The majority of LSU's perimeter defenders, excluding Shavon Coleman and Tim Quarterman, are better in that type of sped-up game than they are in the halfcourt. Part of that is discipline, as players like Anthony Hickey and Malik Morgan have always preferred to rely on their quick hands and struggled to stay in front of driving wings, and part of that is limited size (Hickey and Andre Stringer are both under six foot and get shot over the top of regularly).
Couple that with two extremely mobile and rangy young bigs like Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, and it's a wonder Jones doesn't go this route more often. A season ago Jones' reluctance made sense given the team's short bench, but now that the Tigers routinely go eight or nine deep, holding back from this kind of defensive approach is a head-scratcher. Jones would be playing into the strengths of his roster, particularly his backcourt, by showing more trapping and pressing looks. The Tigers certainly could've used four or five more minutes of pressure defense down the stretch in Tuscaloosa, where LSU stopped pressing basically as soon as it managed to tie the game. I understand foul trouble is a concern when pressing, but LSU is a better team in this mode and shouldn't wait until trailing by double-digits to trot it out.
One final related note: Shavon Coleman was outstanding reprising his role from a year ago as the head of the snake in the full-court press. The senior was also really good in playing passing lanes and pressuring ball-handlers in halfcourt defense. That intensity and ability kept Coleman in the game for a team-high 36 minutes at Alabama. He finished the game with three steals to go with 14 points and four rebounds.
Three-point play: In your weekly Jordan Mickey block-party update, the freshman entered Saturday night's game with 62 total blocks, averaging 3.65 rejections per contest. That was good enough to place Mickey second in the country in that category, trailing only Arizona State's 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski, who's swatting away 4.47 shots an outing … Another statistical note: Heading into the ‘Bama game, LSU ranked 10th in the SEC (and tied for 220th nationwide) in turnover margin. The Tigers were sporting a -0.6 margin, better than only Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia and Vanderbilt in-conference … Slowly but surely senior Andre Stringer has gotten into a groove coming off the bench. In his first game not starting, at South Carolina, Stringer scored only nine points and doled out one assist, but in the four games since he's averaging 14.25 points and 2.75 assists to go with 2.5 made threes per game.
The Tigers will return home to the PMAC for both games in Week Four of the SEC schedule. LSU tips off the week Tuesday night at 8 p.m. versus No. 14 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1). ESPN will carry the television broadcast. John Calipari's Cats have won three straight, all at home – against Tennessee, Texas A&M and Georgia – since falling in overtime at Arkansas on Jan. 14.
Finishing up the week, LSU will welcome in Arkansas (13-6, 2-4) on Saturday night, with tip-off set for 4 p.m. ESPNU will carry the television broadcast. Mike Anderson's Razorbacks will trek to Baton Rouge on a similar extended rest that LSU will enjoy as the Hogs host Missouri Tuesday night in Fayetteville. Arkansas defended its home court Saturday, defeating Auburn, and putting the brakes on a two-game skid – with both losses coming on the road (at Georgia, at Tennessee).
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Comeback effort falls short for LSU at Alabama