Johnny Jones' squad tipped off the week at home versus Texas A&M, a game in which the Bayou Bengals held the visiting Aggies to 30.8% shooting from the field in a 68-49 LSU win. The Tigers faced a completely different animal in Gainesville over the weekend, falling victim to a red-hot Florida team in a resounding 79-61 defeat.
LSU now stands at 17-11 overall, 8-8 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. Florida game illustrates gap in programs, levels of development
It's one thing to lose on the road in this league. That's become commonplace for 13 of the SEC's 14 teams. It's another thing entirely to get dismantled in a game you have to have. That's what happened Saturday afternoon to LSU, which ran into a program operating on an entirely different level in terms of overall talent, depth, experience, coaching, national prestige (ranking) and, last but not least, home-court advantage.
What Billy Donovan has cultivated at Florida should be the envy of every program in the conference, including Kentucky, and it's worth stressing that it doesn't happen overnight. Where an upstart program like LSU, in year two under Johnny Jones, must bring in its best freshmen and rely on them as two of the Tigers' best players, the Gators calmly just add their best frosh to a collection of battle-tested talent well-staggered by class.
Just think of that difference alone: For LSU, Jordan Mickey plays a team-high 32.3 minutes per game and Jarell Martin logs 25.3 mpg. Night in and night out, those two are asked to be the Tigers' second and third best players. For Florida, point guard Kasey Hill plays 23.2 mpg, seeing decent time while apprenticing behind Scottie Wilbekin, and forward Chris Walker is easing his way back into action the past eight games, averaging 5.4 mpg.
The Gators trot out four senior starters – Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young – to go with one sophomore, Michael Frazier II. What's more: Donovan's players, as they matriculate through the system, develop specifically into their collegiate roles. They don't focus on what will best get them to the next level; they buy in and play ultimate team basketball, as evidenced by their SEC-best defense that's conceding only 58.6 points per game (the next closest team, Texas A&M, surrenders 62.6 ppg).
Saturday's game served notice of the things LSU will have to do over the next few seasons to get to that elite type of level. The good news is the Tigers aren't alone in the SEC in chasing model program Florida. Everybody else is in line, too. But LSU, which habitually left players open from deep and couldn't keep slashers out of the lane, will have to cure its defensive demons to even dream of a Florida-like ascent. On top of that, the players that continue to flood Jones' program need to be made up of a different composition – one that's a little tougher and buys in to what's being preached on both ends of the floor.
Until that day arrives, games like Saturday's will continue to show LSU how much ground it has to cover.
2. Frontcourt shakeup will help LSU next season
From the "not giving up on this season, but it's never too early to starting looking ahead" department, here's something I never thought I'd type and you probably never thought you'd read. LSU is going to be better off in 2014-15 without the frontcourt trio of Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey and Johnny O'Bryant. Take me to the looney bin if you must, but everything I've seen this season tells me the Tigers will improve without the clogged 3-4-5 rotation that consists of two former McDonald's All-Americans and another four-star prospect. They're quite simply talented pieces that don't even remotely fit together.
O'Bryant is the given to leave, now physically and more mentally ready to make the transition to the pro game after his junior campaign, one in which he's raised his scoring average (13.6 ppg to 15.6 ppg), field-goal percentage (48.0% to 49.4%) and free-throw percentage (59.6% to 65.8%) from a season ago. Rumblings are that LSU can expect to lose one of the two freshmen along with O'Bryant, and the smart money – or at least my money – is on Martin. I'll submit that this too will end up being a good thing for LSU, as Martin has a world of offensive upside but apparently little-to-no inclination toward defense, be it man or zone. He's left a 6-foot-10-sized gap defensively at the three position all season long.
And so, spinning things forward, LSU is likely to lose quite a bit of talent in the frontcourt, but the Tigers will also gain a ton more balance on the floor from positions one through five. Instead of being lop-sided, and trying to find enough shots and space for three forwards (two of whom, Martin and Mickey, want to be playing the same position and constantly step on each other's' shoes in that regard), Jones' crew will feature three aggressive perimeter players – Anthony Hickey, Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby – along with one returning forward (probably Mickey) and a slew of fives who don't necessarily demand touches while on the court (Darcy Malone, John Odo and Elbert Robinson).
Call me crazy, but I see a lineup that potentially could be a lot better defensively and will get its points, just from different positions.
Three-point play: With 94 total blocks, freshman Jordan Mickey is now averaging exactly 3.36 rejections per contest. That average places Mickey tops in the SEC and sixth overall in the NCAA. The nation's leader, Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski, averages 4.24 swats per game … At 19.7 three-point attempts per game, LSU averages the third most attempts from deep in the SEC. The Tigers, however, shoot 34.5% from beyond the arc, seventh-best in the conference … Four LSU players are now averaging double figures scoring on the season – Johnny O'Bryant (15.6 ppg), Jordan Mickey (13.4 ppg), Andre Stringer (11.6 ppg) and Jarell Martin (10.3 ppg).
The Tigers remain on the road to begin the final week of the regular season, traveling to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt (15-13, 7-9) Thursday night. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., Central Time, and ESPN2 will carry the television broadcast. Kevin Stallings' Commodores lost two in a row last week, punctuated by an emphatic 76-38 beat-down in Knoxville at the hands of Tennessee.
LSU ties a bow on its 18-game SEC schedule Saturday afternoon on short rest with Georgia (16-12, 10-6) in town for the Tigers' senior day. Tip-off in the PMAC is set for 4 p.m., Central Time. FSN will have the television broadcast. Mark Fox's Bulldogs continue to be the surprise of the league in 2014, winners of six of their last eight and currently entrenched as the SEC's No. 3 seed heading into the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.