Even though Johnny Jones & Co. are finishing out a trip to paradise – in the Virgin Islands for the 2014 Paradise Jam – it hasn’t been particularly peaceful or ideal for the purple and gold.
The Tigers, set to play in the tournament’s fourth-place game Monday afternoon, are still showing plenty of early rust and pockets of weakness as this past week they struggled to get by presumed Big 12 lower-half team Texas Tech, lost to Old Dominion and had to come alive in the second half to beat Weber State in consecutive games.
LSU now stands at 3-1 overall.
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 as TSD will run this feature on a weekly basis come SEC play.
1. Big Four reliance is through the roof so far
There are plenty of statistics to bring to life this obvious statement about a top-heavy team, but none are more damning than the minutes played numbers – and, frankly, that’s where the long-term concerns will surface about the durability about these Tigers. Here are the average minutes played for LSU’s Big Four through four ballgames.
F Jordan Mickey – 36.5 mpg
F Jarell Martin – 36.2 mpg
G Keith Hornsby – 35.2 mpg
G Josh Gray – 34.5 mpg
Put another way there have only been a possible 165 minutes of game action so far (counting five OT minutes in Texas Tech game), and Mickey has played 146 of ‘em. Next in line following this quartet is sophomore guard Tim Quarterman at 28.8 mpg, and there are only two others averaging double-digit minutes after that – Jalyn Patterson (10.8) and Aaron Epps (10.0, but didn’t play in Old Dominion game). Freshman starting center Elbert Robinson III is averaging 7.8 mpg and has scored all of four points on the season. That’s another story for another day, but it underscores the fact that depth is at a serious premium for Jones this campaign.
Looking at it from a positive light the Big Four has been productive with all this time on the floor. They represent the only four LSU players averaging double figures. Mickey, who had a bounce-back game versus Weber State, leads the way at 17.8 ppg to go with 10.0 rpg. Martin, still taking too many outside shots but improved as a rebounder, is giving the Tigers a slash line of 16.5/9.5 every game. Hornsby has been good for 15.5 ppg while Gray is averaging 11.0 ppg. These guys are NCAA Tournament-caliber on their own, but we’ll learn throughout the season how LSU copes when one more or more these weapons are taken away due to foul trouble (which we saw in the first half versus Old Dominion) or injury.
2. LSU could use a little more take-over from Josh Gray
This bullet point stands on its own as a valuable notion for the good of the team, but it would also help solve two other overriding dilemmas facing the offense. First, LSU is taking far too many three-point shots for a team that doesn’t have that many bona fide outside shooters. The Tigers are shooting 50.5% (96-of-190) from two-point range and 27.3% (18-of-66) from deep. Second, and this is just the truth, many of the set plays LSU is running for Jordan Mickey are empty possessions. He’ll get his off of activity and rebounding on that end. Plays attempting to establish him in the post feel out of character for this LSU squad, and the focus of those sets could be elsewhere on better options.
All of this brings me back to Gray, who has shown flashes of his offensive capabilities but, to me at least, seems to be deferring first to start this season, feeling his way into a facilitator role. That’s admirable, and at 3.8 apg, he’s leading the team in assists. But it’s obvious he can do a lot more with his handles and ability to get into the lane when he wants. Gray’s points and assist numbers would go up if more of LSU’s offense revolved around him getting into the paint and scoring or dishing. So too would the number of open shots the Tigers take from much closer to the basket, which, as the percentages above reflect, would work very well in LSU’s favor.
It’s still a very young season, and a lot of growth/jelling will naturally take place, but I believe it’s in LSU’s best interest for Gray to get a touch more selfish.
3. It’s time for the Tim Quarterman hate to stop
Of course I don’t actually mean hate as in the opposite of love. More that outspoken critics of Quarterman need to find a new shtick as the sophomore guard is growing and settling into an important role on this 2014-15 squad. Is Quarterman exactly what everyone thought he would be as a four-star prospect coming from Georgia a year and a half ago? No, he’s proving to be a different type of athlete with a skill-set that's more hard-nosed and defensive and visual than it is shooting/scoring-based.
While that may not be as sexy as getting on campus an out-and-out scorer on the perimeter, it is a little more in-line with what this specific team needs. LSU desperately needs a lengthy wing to guard the opposition’s best out beyond the three-point line. They need a player who can crash the boards from the two and three positions and also run the break when he gets it off the backboard.
Quarterman has played a minimum of 30 minutes in LSU’s last three games. He’s averaging 7.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.5 apg (against six total turnovers in 115 minutes played) while shooting 80.0% from the line and making the second-most threes on the team so far behind Hornsby. He’s not going to take over a game on his own and his jump shot is still a little like a box of chocolates, but Quarterman is going to have a big say on how this season goes for the Tigers. This time last year, a statement like that might’ve been met with doubt. Now the Savannah native looks more the part.
The Bayou Bengals play twice this coming week, wrapping up Paradise Jam play in Monday’s fourth-place game versus Clemson (2-2), which rebounded from an opening-round loss to Gardner-Webb by beating Nevada 59-50 on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 3 p.m. Central Time, and a live stream of the game can be viewed on ParadiseJam.com. LSU will return home to welcome McNeese State (2-1) to the PMAC Saturday night for a 7 p.m. tip. The game is listed as showing on SEC Network-plus. The Cowboys got walloped 80-39 at Baylor in their opener but have bounced back with home victories over Louisiana College and Jarvis Christian.
But the steeper challenges for LSU, and certainly the biggest non-conference matchups of the season, come the following week. The Tigers host Massachusetts (4-1) on Tuesday, Dec. 2, before playing at West Virginia (4-0 at the time of this writing but plays undefeated Connecticut Sunday night) two nights later as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Already both teams have defeated Boston College while UMass owns an impressive win over Florida State and the Mountaineers demolished George Mason. This will be a pivotal stretch for LSU pre-January when it comes to building a reputation and boosting RPI.
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