Texas A&M team that had lost six of seven prior to the matchup. LSU followed up that loss with one slightly more respectable in Fayetteville, though still worth the same in the W-L column. Arkansas, which brought back Final Four teams and former President Bill Clinton, rode the home crowd's energy to an 81-70 victory over the Bayou Bengals Saturday afternoon.
LSU now stands at 15-9 overall, 6-6 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 through the end of the 2013-14 season.
1. Defensive struggles, road woes negating LSU's talent
From the moment Johnny O'Bryant announced he was returning for his junior season late last spring, expectations in LSU country began to soar. Here was the Tigers' All-SEC player consenting to give it one more go with the same nucleus that just finished .500 in league play, plus a top-10 recruiting class. The talent would be so much this team would have to make the NCAA Tournament, so went the thinking.
Well, 24 games into the 2013-14 season, enhanced talent hasn't meant much of anything for LSU. Yes, the Tigers score it with a little more ease and, yes, the steals and block totals are through the roof with all the added length. But very few of the things that make up a solid, sound and consistent basketball team are present with this group on a game-in, game-out basis.
Part of that is because LSU just doesn't travel. The Tigers, now 2-6 on the road (1-5 in the league), haven't been able to translate their home game away from the PMAC this entire season. Call it a lack of toughness, leadership, focus, whatever you want. Several may apply. The facts are the facts: When LSU plays on the road, the Tigers get very easily and very quickly sucked into the other team's game plan. So, from a coaching and execution standpoint, LSU hasn't been able to enforce its will on hardly anybody in another team's building.
Shoddy defense goes a long way to explaining why that is. The problem is that LSU hasn't been defending home or away in the last month. The Tigers have surrounded at least 80 points in six of their last seven games, with the only exception being a home date with depleted Arkansas (which still scored 74 points without Alandise Harris or Michael Qualls). For Jones, there's no reason things should be in their current state defensively: "I thought we'd be better defensively with the size, strength and quickness we have. We have no excuses not to be."
Keeping O'Bryant on the floor early, or at all, has been a seminal issue in all of the defensive letdowns. Opponents have had no trouble getting into the lane on LSU, leaving O'Bryant and Mickey with decisions to make. Mickey's length and shot-blocking prowess make it a little easier for him to avoid fouls, but O'Bryant has been a bit of a foul magnet for all three of his seasons on campus. Get him out of the game, and LSU goes from an average defensive team to one of the worst in the SEC. The league has figured that out, and the Tigers are still trying to adjust.
In the end, I'm not sure which of these dilemmas (road woes, defensive struggles) is the most damning. One of these two major problems will make it tough for any team to make the postseason. But being saddled with both will almost guarantee a team's absence, no matter how much prospective NBA talent is on-hand.
2. At this rate LSU will have to work to ensure NIT status
It sounds bizarre given that the Tigers were on top of the world seemingly after defeating No. 11 Kentucky less than three weeks ago, but it's true. Look at what's going on around the SEC lately, and you'll find LSU isn't the only Big Dance hopeful slumping. Tennessee has lost two in a row and three of four. Ole Miss has lost two in a row and four of six. The only other real contender, Missouri, had to win two in a row last week just to get back to 6-6 in conference play.
Add it all up, and what do you have? A conference that'll be lucky to get three teams into the NCAA Tournament, that's what. The trickle-down effect to the NIT is what LSU fans need to begin to worry about with only a few weeks remaining in the regular season. The reason: If a conference only has enough juice to get two or three teams into the big show, it will be viewed similarly (read: poorly) when it comes to the next tournament in line. That means it's conceivable that only two or three more SEC teams make the NIT.
Right now LSU is in a three-way tie for fifth in the conference with Missouri and Tennessee, one of which has three more overall wins than the Bayou Bengals (Mizzou) and the other which has the tie-breaker over LSU (Tennessee). With a distinct possibility that only five total SEC teams make the two tournaments combined, LSU has work to do to gain separation and feel good about its chances pre-SEC Tournament.
As a reminder, here's the closing stretch for LSU:
vs. Mississippi State
vs. Texas A&M
Should LSU falter in all three road games, it's my opinion the Tigers will have work to do in Atlanta to be NIT-bound.
Three-point play: With 84 total blocks, freshman Jordan Mickey is now averaging exactly 3.50 rejections per contest. That lofty average places Mickey tops in the SEC and fifth overall in the NCAA. The nation's leader, Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski, averages 4.60 swats per game … A sign of how porous the Tigers defense has been the past few weeks, LSU is officially now giving up more points than it scores in SEC play. After the loss at Arkansas, the Tigers now average 76.3 points through 12 league games. Unfortunately, LSU is conceding an average of 77.2 points … LSU has four players averaging double-figure scoring in SEC play – Johnny O'Bryant (16.8 ppg); Jordan Mickey (13.1 ppg); Andre Stringer (11.4 ppg) and Jarell Martin (10.7 ppg).
Bonus Stat: Of all the stats I've perused this entire season, this is probably the most mind-boggling. LSU has played 12 conference games, and starting forward Jarell Martin, who logs 26.0 minutes a game in SEC play, has only four total assists.
The Tigers return home to the PMAC following two straight games on the road to host Mississippi State (13-12, 3-9) on Wednesday night. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., Central Time, and SEC TV will carry the television broadcast. Rick Ray's Bulldogs have lost seven consecutive games after beginning SEC play at 3-2. The Cowbell Crew is yet to win away from Starkville in 2014.
LSU wraps up Week Seven in the league by traveling to Rupp Arena on Saturday. The Tigers will take on No. 14 Kentucky (19-6, 9-3) with tip-off set for 3 p.m., Central Time. ESPN will have the television broadcast. John Calipari's ‘Cats lost their first home game of the season this past weekend to No. 3 Florida. Prior to that UK was 14-0 in its home arena in 2013-14.