Derick E. Hingle/USA Today

COLUMN | Renewed commitment to defense better be on LSU' wish list

Johnny Jones and his coaches have to find the right recipe to find the Tigers' defensive identity.

Good news for the LSU basketball team. There’s absolutely no need to worry about a chunk of coal on Christmas morning. Seems the Tigers got a rather sizable one Thursday night when they went to Wake Forest and staggered through the worst second half in recent program history in a 110-76 loss.

There should be plenty of hopes and wishes for what the Tigers and fifth-year coach Johnny Jones might find under their trees and in their stockings once Santa Claus does his thing.

And on the top of every one of those wish lists should be ‘better defense.’

First off, all the clichés apply and are reasonable excuses here: It was LSU’s first true road game, it was against an ACC opponent looking for a break-through season and it is just one game. All of that is true and fair and accurate point out.

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What is a little trickier to explain or justify is how the Demon Deacons blazed to the win, LSU’s worst since Rick Pitino’s last Kentucky crew racked up 86 first-half points on the way to a 129-97 triumph.

Because the Tigers’ defense, and that word is only used because there aren’t a lot of antonyms that make sense, folded like a house of cards.

Now, Wake deserves a huge tip of that strange top hat the Deacon mascot wears: Any time a team hits 73.5% from the floor over 20 minutes and pops in 11 3-pointers in 14 tries, that’s an amazing hot hand.

At some point, though, the LSU defense needed to have a say in just how hot the Deacons stayed on their way to 67 points after halftime.

Specifically, some pride would’ve been nice to see.

Right now, this Tigers’ team that possesses much better chemistry than last year’s train wreck of a team has absolutely no defensive identity.

LSU has struggled with the dribble-drive, which makes the Tigers more part of a trend than just a bad defensive team. New NCAA rules and the enforcement of old ones, plus a rampant disregard for defense at lower levels (and to a degree at the highest level), is creating more playground-style basketball in the college game than ever before.

So getting beat on dribble-drives is going to happen. It happens to every team, including the programs where defense is a priority.

Not defending the 3-point line and a conspicuous disinterest in transition defense, well those are unforgivable transgressions, at least to the glaring degree LSU allowed both parts of the offense to click so well against them vs. Wake.

Body up shooters and if you lose track of one, sprint to the closeout and make the shot as difficult as possible. Casually lifting a hand up … not going to work.

And when the other team is headed toward the other end in a hurry, get in their path. Draw a charge. Commit a good hard, clean foul if need be. Set a tone.

Show some pride.

This is stuff that is coached, preached about, drilled, hammered home – add any other visual aid needed – every single day in practice.

What games like Thursday and the two similar debacles at the end of last season do are make you wonder if the message is effectively getting through to the congregation.

As we are seeing in college football the last few weeks with players threatening to boycott bowl games and others simply opting out, players are starting to feel more empowered than ever before. If you read that as “players are more spoiled than ever,” well, hammer meet head of the nail. (Yeah, I am old-school and don’t apologize for it.)

Not all players, and certainly two fewer on this current LSU team than last season. Two major components.

There is no reason to believe that the current roster of Tigers has any misguided attitudes. In fact, all indications are that this LSU team consists of players that are solid, team guys who aren’t focusing on months down the road, although at least two are very strong candidates for the 2017 NBA Draft and a third may be working his way onto the radar.

There is no question that the Tigers’ players deserve a large share of blame for not accepting/receiving the constant messages about defense and subsequently taking the game plan to the court.

The man delivering that message also bears responsibility, though.

Johnny Jones can coach defense. His earlier LSU teams were very good defensively. These current Tigers have the parts in place to be respectable on that end of the floor, and in fact, had better figure out how to be pretty quickly.

And this is arguably Jones’ strongest all-around coaching staff when you factor in Brendan Suhr’s amazing resume, the years Robert Kirby has spent in college basketball and especially the SEC and Randy Livingston’s years in the NBA and NBDL.

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For whatever reason, though, either the system that Jones and Co. are instructing and relying on is sputtering, opponents are figuring it out too easily on video or Jones and his staff simply aren’t getting the message across because the one currency isn’t being properly used – one that every athlete who has every stepped on a playing field fully understands.

Playing time.

Jones doesn’t need my advice doing his job. My opinions are as valuable to him as those of the keyboard cowboys (and cowgirls) who mistakenly think they know more about basketball than the four guys in charge of the Tigers who have all lived, breathed and loved the game for decades.

That said, I have watched enough basketball as a kid growing up in Kansas who fell in love with it from the time I could walk to see that things are awry for LSU right now.

Whether it’s Jones needing to step back and accept more input from his assistants and using what they contribute, or him doling out more tough love, something has to change quickly. The easiest, most direct and attention-getting way of doing that is by putting a butt or several on the bench.

LSU has made huge strides in Jones’ tenure toward becoming a much more stable program, not one where good teams emerge every few years and then settle back into mediocrity. Recruiting has been very good with one glaring exception that was impossible to pass up, primarily because Jones and his coaches have found players who fit LSU and do things the right way in the class room and off the court.

Now there needs to be a sense of renewed urgency on the part of both the players and Jones to make sure defense is something his team commits to for 40 minutes every single time out and not just an idle though. If that means forfeiting some offensive firepower – something the Tigers haven’t lacked for in his tenure – so be it.

LSU is a better team than it showed against Wake Forest. So there is ‘it’s just one game’ element involved.

To avoid that morphing into more of a lingering question/criticism, the Tigers have to discover the combination of execution, commitment, coaching and pride that equates to better defense.

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