We already delved into LSU’s various postseason probabilities earlier today, so let’s dispense with the usual line that the Tigers need a quality win to bolster slim NCAA tourney chances. Trekking to No. 1 Florida (16-2, 15-0 SEC) qualifies. The Gators have won 20 in a row this season, and they also carry a 30-game win streak at the O’Connell Center. Tall order is the most apt description of what lies in front of the Tigers (17-10, 8-7) at 3 p.m. Saturday. LSU last beat a top-ranked team in the 2006 NCAA tournament against Duke during the Sweet 16. The last one in the regular season came in December 2002 against Arizona. Obviously a victory in Gainesville would apply figurative electric paddles to whatever slim chances the Tigers have at an at-large berth.
We spent about 10 minutes on Thursday rummaging through the thoughts offered by coach Johnny Jones on the tilt. So, here ya go, dear reader.
- The sample size is small — two games — but LSU’s cobbled together decent outings defensively. Kentucky and Mississippi State shot just a combined 36.9 percent (44 of 119) from the floor, including 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) from long-distance. Now, there’s a caveat, too. UK was hellbent on driving the ball toward the tin circle that is the rim. The Wildcats rolled up 50 points in the paint and a 24-9 edge on second-chance points. So clanking eight of the nine 3-pointers they jacked up was negated. We detailed A&M’s scoring woes earlier this season, too. Entering Wednesday, they’d been held under 55 points nine times this season, including scoring just 36 points at Florida. But LSU can take some credit for doing what it was supposed to do against a sputtering and slow-moving half-court offense. After hitting 2 of 3 behind the arc, the Aggies went just 2 of 14 the rest of the way. All of which is perfectly fine and dandy for Jones. ”I thought we did a good job guarding the 3-point line,” he said. “We’ve guarded the rim better last night, moreso than even the Kentucky game. That’s a scenario where we’re going to have to continue to grow. Not only guarding that area, but rebounding the basketball.”
- Last year, the Gators carried an irksome reputation as a team that couldn’t close out tight ball games. This season, it’s been completely shed. In games decided by less than 6 points, or two possessions, UF is 7-2, which includes their past three SEC victories. ”They’ve been battle-tested,” Jones said. Meanwhile, they trailed by seven points at Kentucky with 11:42 left and scored on every remaining possessions to snatch a 68-59 road victory in Rupp Arena. By now, Florida’s experience — they start four seniors — is widely touted, and it’s shown up in crunch time. ”That’s their make up,” Jones said. “They have great leadership in those type of games through the years, and they have the ability to close. When you have guys that understand their roles and can make big plays, they know exactly who to go to.”
- A plethora of gaudy statistics show how stellar Florida is defensively. (They’re 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.) But here a couple numbers to show just how good Florida has been at home defensively. The Gators allow foes to score just 51.7 points, shoot 38.5 percent, including 32.3 percent from 3-point range, and give up just 20.1 points per game in the paint. UF also averages 17 points per game off turnovers, which is roughly double their opponents. Again, experience and seat time with each other, per se, has helped hone Florida on the defensive end. ”It’s a balance of both,” Jones said. “Because of how good they are defensively, it has a lot to do with the experience they have on the team. That’s not something that happens overnight. They’re well drilled, and the way the play, they’re really comfortable, familiar and trust each other. When you have that in a basketball team, and that’s a big positive.” Flipping on the film is akin to watching footage fit for a clinic, too. Jones tried layout what impresses him about the Gators working in the half court on the defensive end. ”When you have the basketball, they have a lot of eyes on you,” Jones said. “They’re in the right position and trying to take away driving lines, helping, switching, communicating and at the end of the day rebounding the basketball. They’re a physical team as well. They’re strong, and play with a sense of urgency and toughness all the time.”
- Naturally, LSU’s players were asked about the challenge of facing the nation’s top-ranked squad. So was Jones. ”You’re excited because it’s in your conference,” Jones said. “You have a chance to utilize them as a measuring stick this time of year (about) where you are. To have a team like that on their home floor, who’s played exceptionally well … you get excited about it.”
- Florida features four players averaging double figures, paced by Casey Prather‘s 14.8 points per game. But senior guard Scottie Wilbekin has picked up the baton for scoring recently. Over the past six games, he’s posting 17.0 points per game, highlighted by 23 points in the win at Kentucky. At the same time, he’s still averaging 4.4 assists per game, along a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio, to keep the Gators sense of balance in tact. ”I know the type of player he is for Florida’s basketball team,” Jones said. “He’s their quarterback. He’s a true leader on that floor, and on the defensive end of the floor he’s very tough. He initiates their defense. On the offensive end, he’s the trigger guy, because he creates opportunities for other guys on the floor and can make big plays. In the end of games and closing games, he’s got the ball in his hands, because he’s a great decision maker.”
- LSU’s Anthony Hickey, though, has stitched together his own stellar stretch the past month, too. The junior is averaging 13.9 points per game to go with 6.5 assists. Taken together, he’s been as productive as Wilbekin over the same stretch in terms of facilitating and creating offense. It’s a match up that will be front a center. “Both guys are very competitive,” Jones said. “Both of them compete very well, and both of them certainly present different challenges for each other.” Prodding, though, didn’t lead to Jones declaring what he thinks Hickey does better than his peer in blue and orange. “Run our team,” Jones cracked. “They’re very quick and they’re very strong. You can’t say both those guys mirror each other, but the thing you like about both is they compete at a high level.”