1. Now THAT’S how the Tigers need Josh Gray to play.- It won’t be this easy for him every night, as even Johnny Jones conceded postgame that the UMass defense was structured to stop Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey primarily, but Gray took full advantage of gaps in the defense and played far and away his most assertive ball of the season. The JuCo transfer put in 25 points, his most in an LSU uniform, converting 11-of-15 shots and making three of four attempts from deep. Gray added four rebounds, five assists and three steals, consistently bringing a higher level of energy on both ends.
He did turn it over seven times, a byproduct of going a little too fast in small windows, but I’ll submit LSU will take that all day as long as Gray is getting to the basket and opening things up for himself and his teammates. The Tigers scored 52 of their 82 points tonight in the paint. It’s no coincidence that happened with Gray looking to get into the lane more than he did through the team’s first six games. Again, certain defensive schemes and individual defenders won’t allow Gray to do what he did against the Minutemen, but his overall approach to the game tonight is what’s needed for this team to survive some of the offensive dry spells they’re known to go through and win ballgames.
2. Tigers reversed the end-of-first-half curse.- LSU has been downright dreadful to end opening halves this season. Usually somewhere right around the time that Tim Quarterman’s spark off the bench fizzles, about 10-12 minutes into the game, the Tigers have gone in the tank. It happened against low-level opponents Gardner-Webb and McNeese State, both of which LSU was tied with at the half, and in a really big way against Old Dominion. Consider that tonight, when the Tigers led UMass 44-32 at the break, was only the second time LSU has held a lead at halftime (the other was a one-point lead over Clemson) this season.
The driving force behind the change – and LSU’s lead at intermission – was a devastating 17-2 run the Tigers embarked on with the game tied at 24 with 8:23 left in the opening 20 minutes. Johnny Jones’ crew did it offensively, with multiple players chipping in points during the run and the team finally solving a zone defense, and defensively, holding UMass without a bucket for a whopping four minutes and five seconds of game time and causing 11 first-half turnovers by the visitors. Life after halftime was a lot smoother sailing for Jones and LSU after earning a little cushion. It allowed the Tigers to really put their thumb on a pretty good club in Massachusetts. What a difference a little daylight at halftime can make.
3. LSU offense is figuring out where it needs to be.- Which is to say close to the basket. I hinted at this in the Josh Gray section above, but the Tigers seemed to know their role tonight when it came to where they’d find their best shots. LSU finished the game scoring 63.4% of its points in the paint. But the numbers that matter even more: The Bayou Bengals shot 30-of-52 (57.7%) inside the arc and 5-of-13 (38.5%) from downtown.
That’s not as drastic a difference as we’ve seen through the first six games even, as LSU came into the game making only 25.5% of its three-point attempts. But it’s clear the point is being driven home to the team by the coaching staff – the Tigers don’t need that many hoisted up from deep. The shot selection improved, in large part because of Gray attacking but also because perimeter players were a little choosier jacking up long balls early in the shot clock. LSU was better about pulling back out on sets that were going nowhere and trying different things (Mickey on the low block, Martin/Mickey high-low, screen action). The results and the scoreboard spoke for themselves.