Second Basketball Scouting Report: LSU
If you look at the whole of Vanderbilt's SEC season, you'll notice that this shorthanded team has been admirably competitive – not just to the extent that it has almost managed to break even in league play despite its lack of available manpower, but in terms of being in the hunt on a regular basis. Even when Vanderbilt has lost an SEC game, it has almost always remained competitive heading into the under-four-minute media timeout. In many ways, it's a source of wonderment that this team hasn't been blown out more often over the past two months. That's just another reflection of the extent to which Kevin Stallings has overachieved on the bench this season.
This past Saturday, though, the roof fell in, and it was completely understandable that it did.
Vanderbilt threw everything into the attempt to knock off No. 1 Florida in Memorial Gym. The Commodores didn't just play hard in that contest – the more instructive and granular point to make is that they played hard while continuously trailing on the scoreboard. Effort in itself is one thing; effort in the face of game pressure is another, and effort in the face of negative scoreboard realities is still another matter. Pushing uphill with all one's might and strength does take something out of the human body – physically, yes, but also mentally.
Vanderbilt's bodies did have three full days to regroup from the Florida loss, but the minds of VU's young men – which have been pushed beyond any degree they reasonably could have conceived of this season – were taxed and cooked on Saturday in Knoxville. Finally, this team ran on empty, and it's so impressive it took this long for such an event to unfold once again. When the Commodores and Stallings can work with more players next season, this year's battle with adversity and limitation will serve the program so well.
There was only one other time in this SEC season when a game completely unraveled and spun out of Vanderbilt's control. Roughly 48 hours after a draining, high-energy win over Missouri on a Thursday (Jan. 16), Vanderbilt had to make a quick turnaround and play a Saturday night game in Baton Rouge, La. The LSU Tigers were waiting for a tired VU crew, and the Bayou Bengals took full advantage of the scheduling system, running away with an 81-58 victory. This time, of course, Vanderbilt will have extra rest instead of short rest, not to mention home-court advantage. Let's see if the Commodores can at least give themselves a chance to pull off a 9-9 SEC record this season.
The Tigers are done as an at-large team – they can only make the NCAA tournament by winning the SEC Tournament, and with Arkansas playing at a high level right now, LSU's odds of making a magical four-day run are decreasing rather than improving. The failure to reach the field of 68 represents an enormous disappointment for a program that, after an encouraging 2013 season, was supposed to have all the pieces in place, with enough experience to respond to every particularly urgent situation.
It's true that the Tigers were the victim of a noticeably dubious foul call at the end of regulation time against Kentucky in Rupp Arena, but LSU could have won that game in other ways at other points in time. LSU was never supposed to be walking on the ledge in a below-average SEC. The Tigers should not have been susceptible to the same Jekyll-and-Hyde split in home and road games that has affected so many other teams in the conference this season. Yet, this is the team that has materialized over the past two months.
Forward – Johnny O'Bryant III – Junior, 6-9, 256 2013-14: 15.5 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game
O'Bryant's numbers look good, and to a certain extent, they are good. Yet, one thing that has to be said about O'Bryant is that when he gets the ball with his back to the basket in the low post, he all too frequently turns the ball over and fails to make the pass or adjustment that could enable LSU's halfcourt offense to function much more efficiently. O'Bryant averages just over 3 turnovers per game, creating a 0.5-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. That lack of prudence with the rock sabotages way too many LSU possessions, and it gives opponents such an easy target to double-team. O'Bryant faltered late in the Tigers' loss to Kentucky in Rupp Arena, and he has been similarly turnover-prone against other active defenses such as Florida and (in non-conference play) Memphis. O'Bryant has to become a better passer and a more vigilant student of the game if LSU is going to take meaningful forward strides, be it in the coming weeks or (more likely) next season. O'Bryant is a solid player. He can be so much better if he wants to be.
Forward – Jordan Mickey – Freshman, 6-8, 220; 2013-14: 13.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.4 blocks per game
Mickey was blocking shots the last time these teams played (Jan. 18), and he's still a force in that regard. Vanderbilt's experiences against Tennessee's big men last Saturday should leave the Dores adequately prepared for LSU's frontcourt. That said, it's not as though these matchups will be favorable – they're simply matchups VU can prepare for and adjust to.
Forward/Guard – Shavon Coleman – Senior, 6-5, 195; 2013-14: 8.8 ppg, 4 rpg, 1.4 steals per game
Coleman has, over the past one and a half months, not become a higher-level impact playe for the Tigers. He's not alone in that regard, but he's part of the reason why this team has underachieved, all things considered.
Forward – Jarell Martin – Freshman, 6-9, 241; 2013-14: 10.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg
Martin replaced injured teammate Malik Morgan (who was knocked out for the season in LSU's game against Auburn on Feb. 8) in the LSU starting lineup. LSU head coach Johnny Jones gave Martin around 20 minutes per game through most of January, including the time when Vanderbilt played the Bayou Bengals. Starting in the final week of January, however, Jones increased Martin's workload. Over the past six weeks, Martin has been averaging closer to 30 minutes per contest instead of 20. When LSU likes to go smaller with its lineup, senior guard Andre Stringer comes off the bench as the Tigers' sixth man. Stringer plays 26.3 minutes per game, averaging 11.6 points and 3 assists per game while hitting 39.5 percent of his threes, the best such mark on the team for any player averaging at least 10 minutes of playing time each gamenight.
Guard – Anthony Hickey – Junior, 5-11, 182; 2013-14: 9.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.8 steals per game
Hickey's defense hasn't been as good as it once was. When these teams played on Jan. 18, Hickey had been averaging 2.5 steals per game, so his current average marks a substantial downturn. However, Hickey's perimeter shot has clearly improved to a considerable degree. Entering the Jan. 18 game between these teams, Hickey had been converting just 33.3 percent of his three-point shots. Now, he's up to 37.7 percent. A 4.4-percent increase over six weeks marks a strong and consistent upward trajectory.
This rotation has gotten smaller over the course of the season. What had been a nine-man rotation is down to seven. You've read about Stringer, who is a kind of "sixth starter" on this team, given his number of minutes. He's joined by guard Tim Quarterman, who averages only 2.4 points per game. The injury to Morgan has robbed this team of depth, and that's going to level the playing field for Vanderbilt in this game.
Keys to the Game
1) Low-post energy. Vanderbilt should be physically renewed in this game after a chance to enjoy a bit of downtime. That energy needs to manifest itself in the paint, because LSU's frontcourt combination of O'Bryant and Mickey is formidable.
2) Force turnovers. LSU is last in the SEC in turnovers. The Tigers cough up the rock all too frequently for their own good. Vanderbilt needs to pounce on this fact and attack the Tigers at their weakest point. The ability to get transition baskets off turnovers can become Vanderbilt's salvation in this contest.
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