LSU kept the momentum going over the weekend, running past Arkansas 88-74 on Saturday behind 22 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks from freshman Jordan Mickey.
LSU now stands at 14-6 overall, 5-3 in SEC play.
Below I provide three 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 through the end of the 2013-14 season.
1. Defensive switch helped put rangy LSU in the zone
It's not always easy for a coach with convictions to go against what's tried and true for his programs traditionally. And, make no mistake about it, Johnny Jones is a man defense kind of guy. LSU's second-year coach did pull the trigger on a move to zone, however, in advance of the Kentucky game, sliding Jarell Martin back into a bigger starting five and bumping Shavon Coleman up to the two position.
What resulted was a thing of beauty, at least compared to the way LSU had been defending the perimeter through its first 18 games. Coleman and Anthony Hickey gave the Tigers an extremely active (and longer) top of the 2-3 zone while the rangy arms of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey were put to better use along the baseline, roaming either side of middle anchor Johnny O'Bryant. The zone was so effective in the win over the Wildcats that Jones broke it back out for Arkansas, remaining primarily in the 2-3 in Saturday's home win.
Three things the transition does immediately: 1. Puts Coleman in a better position to contest shots from multiple perimeter players, not just his man, and apply ball pressure/traps when needed. 2. Gets Martin in a situation where his length can be put to use both inside and out, ultimately making him more useful than straight man defense, where he struggles to guard smaller, quicker wings. 3. (Maybe most importantly) It keeps LSU's bigs out of foul trouble, allowing them to play for longer periods at a time and giving the Tigers a better shot at being full-strength down the stretch of games.
As Jones said following the Arkansas win, though, LSU is enjoying its experiment with the zone, but it hasn't committed to an all-out switch. "It (the zone) gives us an opportunity to wall up and put our post guys in position to make plays … We'll still continue to switch man and zone, and when we get better at both we'll continue to grow as a basketball team."
2. JOB-led upperclassmen making statement at right time
It's a familiar trick O'Bryant is playing on all of us these days. Just about this time a season ago, JOB emerged from a relatively average stretch of play to embark on a merciless string of double-doubles and downright dominance of any and all opposing frontcourts. One look at what O'Bryant has averaged in his last five games shows the alarm has clearly gone off again this SEC season for the junior: 21.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 58.6% FGs and 69.4% FTs
Hickey's words that same day echoed JOB's. "Everything is on the line. Our goal this year is to get to the tournament. I don't want to make the NIT. I want to make the tournament … I look back and I'm tired of being the underdogs. People talk about they ain't going to win. Now we're just focused on proving them wrong and winning games."
Proving time has come for the LSU basketball team, and O'Bryant isn't the only upperclassman improving his play. Hickey handled the role of floor leader to perfection versus Kentucky, finishing with 11 points, three steals and six assists to zero turnovers. The other older guy getting big recently – Coleman. The senior has been filling up every stich of the stat sheet of late, averaging 15.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 steals over the three-game span leading up to the Arkansas matchup Saturday.
Having talented freshmen is great, but if LSU is going to make any type of legitimate run into and through March, it's these guys the Tigers will rely on for leadership and consistent production.
3. None of this matters if Tigers can't win on the road
Hate to boil things down too much, but the facts are the facts – If LSU can't win away from the PMAC the next five weeks, then this recent resurgence will be for naught. Six of the Tigers' remaining 10 league games come on the road. LSU plays at, in order: Georgia, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt. (For reference sake, the Tigers play Auburn, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Georgia at home still.)
Even if LSU wins all four games in the Assembly Center, a distinct possibility given the opposition, that only puts the Bayou Bengals at nine SEC wins. The Tigers will need a minimum of 12 in-conference victories, pre-SEC tourney, to feel secure in their postseason chances. Easy math then says LSU has to win half of its six road games. Knowing that playing in Lexington and Gainesville are uphill climbs, the Tigers may have to go 3-of-4 in the rest of the road tilts, shrinking the margin for error, especially given how tough Arkansas traditionally is in Fayetteville and how well Vanderbilt is playing.
The path to the postseason is clear for LSU, which will have to translate its recent stellar play to the road on a consistent basis and get favorable results. Jones knows it, too.
"We talk about the process. It's a journey. We've been on the road before, in front of hostile environments," Jones told TSD after the Arkansas win. "We had scoring opportunities late in games (at Ole Miss and Alabama). That says something about your basketball team, being in that kind of position. We've just got to finish."
Four-point play: Updating the weekly Jordan Mickey Block Party, he's now at 75 total rejections. His 3.75-block-per-game average ranks third in the country and first in the SEC, 0.65 blocks per game more than second place, UK center Willie Cauley-Stein … LSU, as a team, continues to be one of the nation's best rebounding outfits. At the dawn of a new week, the Tigers rank 12th in the NCAA on the glass, averaging 41.3 rebounds per game. It didn't hurt LSU's cause that it finished the Arkansas game plus-12 on the boards … Freshman guard Tim Quarterman's usage rate has gone down of late. After averaging 13.0 minutes through the Tigers' first five conference games, Quarterman has played only 8.3 minutes the last three contests … The Tigers have two players in their regular rotation that shoot better than 50% from the floor – Jordan Mickey (56.3%) and Johnny O'Bryant (53.2%). No other LSU player in the eight-man rotation shoots better than 45.7% (Jarell Martin).
After two consecutive games in the PMAC, the Tigers will take to the road to begin Week Five of their SEC schedule. LSU will play in Athens Thursday night at 6 p.m. Central Time against Georgia (10-10, 4-4). ESPN2 will carry the television broadcast. Mark Fox's Bulldogs have dropped three in a row after starting off SEC play at 3-1.
LSU will return home to wrap up the week on short rest, hosting Auburn (10-9, 2-6) on Saturday afternoon, with tip-off set for 3 p.m. SECTV will carry the television broadcast. Tony Barbee's War Eagles finally got off the mat a week ago, winning twice – both at home – to snap a six-game losing streak to usher in league play. Auburn will trek to Baton Rouge after a Wednesday night game at South Carolina.
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