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Ahead of rubbermatch, Tigers pose problematic matchup for Kentucky

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ATLANTA – It’s impossible to know John Calipari’s mood around 9 p.m. last night.

The Kentucky coach didn’t make a media appearance ahead of the No. 2 seed Wildcats’ SEC tournament opener today at the Georgia Dome. Instead, he sent an emissary in assistant coach Orlando Antigua. Even then we only received a pool report of quotes.

Somehow, it was all very reminiscent of getting a communiqué from a closed off foreign regime. Or a blue-blood program trying smooth out its issues — namely defensive intensity — under a veil of secrecy.

Regardless, the bracket didn’t exactly offer Kentucky a gift. Instead, CoachCal’s crew gets No. 7 seed LSU, a team that put together one of its best outings of the season in dispatching No. 10 Alabama on Thursday.

You know, the one that reared back and walloped the Wildcats early in Baton Rouge on a night when ice coated the city and 3,500, uh, worked up students poured into the PMAC.  Or their rematch nearly a month ago at Rupp Arena, the one where LSU couldn’t cling to the leads it had in the final 90 seconds of overtime and regulation.

If not for the heroics of UK forward Julius Randle with 3.9 seconds left in overtime, the Tigers may have nabbed a sweep. Instead, they flew out of Lexington with a tough road setback.

In light of those events, Antigua was terse when asked about a third meeting.

“Another good game,” he said.  ”They’re playing really good basketball. Obviously shot the ball really well tonight, and I just think that we’re going to have another great challenge ahead of us.”

Granted LSU coach Johnny Jones also played diplomat in his post-game press conference — one that featured as many questions about the Tigers’ next game as the one they just finished against the Crimson Tide.

Q:  Kind of a best of three with UK. What do you think you guys have to do to win that series?

A: “They’re a very talented basketball team, and it will be a very hard-fought battle (Friday). We have to go and make sure that we’re probably going to play one of our better games all year. We’re going to have to execute at a high level offensively, beat at our best on the defensive end of the floor. Kentucky will come in, and they will have an edge about themselves.”

OK, so there’s not a lot of insight to parse out.

But what about LSU guard Anthony Hickey, a native of the state and a three-star prospect that UK never recruited? Although, that story line has been mined, the former Mr. Basketball still doesn’t give away animus toward the in-state power.

“It’s just a great challenge playing the home team,” said Hickey, who dropped 20 points on the Wildcats in the last meeting. “When you see Kentucky, you always get amped up because it’s a big name.”

History, though, doesn’t favor the boys from Baton Rouge. LSU is just 1-15 all-time against Kentucky in SEC tournaments. Meanwhile, which lost its first game in the tournament last season, has never gone one-and-done in back-to-back years.

The Tigers have made it to the semifinals three times in the past decade, and the last time they reached the finals it was 1993. The opponent? Kentucky. The outcome? Try an 82-65 thumping inside Rupp Arena.

But today’s meeting carries big significance, in theory, for the Tigers. Sitting at No. 77 in the Ratings Percentage Index, a win might push that number into the low 60s, helping LSU’s chances at landing in the NIT.

In the afternoon session Thursday, fifth-seeded Arkansas flailed through a 71-69 loss to No. 13 seed South Carolina. On the heels of a 25-point rout in their season finale at Alabama, the Razorbacks likely slid off the NCAA tournament bubble and into the NIT.

Typically, the SEC doesn’t get more than three teams into the 32-team field. Right now, it’s safe to assume two of those slots belong to No. 3 Georgia and No. 8 Missouri, which during the writing of this blog was tangling with top-seeded Florida. If the Hogs are NIT bound, it might leave LSU on the stoop. (I detailed this yesterday a little bit, too.)

Asked about the Razorbacks loss and its impact on the Tigers, or the SEC bubble picture.

“You have to put that in the hands of the (NCAA selection) committee,” Jones said. “Hopefully, you’re playing well, and your body of work speaks for itself.”

If anything, beating Bama simply assured the Tigers don’t fall off the 5/6-seed cutline for the other postseason tournament. A win over UK, though, would give LSU as many wins over the ‘Cats as Arkansas, which swept UK. It would give them a higher RPI, too. Moreover, it puts the Tigers into a semifinal against somewhat favorable matchups with either sixth-seeded Ole Miss and Georgia.

The ramifications, however, are something the Tigers don’t want to broach, even if knocking off UK could put them on a trajectory toward trying to (improbably) sneak into the NCAA tournament. Or simply hold pat with the NIT.

“It was a four-game season, now it’s a three-game season,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “Now it’s a three-game season. The NCAA tournament is something we’ll talk about after this over, hopefully. Our focus is on Kentucky, and we’re going to try and handle business tomorrow.”

The Info

  • When: 6 p.m. today.
  • Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
  • Records: No. 7 LSU 19-12; No. 2 Kentucky (22-9)
  • TV: WBXH (Dave Neal, Jon Sunvold).
  • Series: Kentucky leads 94-35.
  • Last Meeting: Kentucky won 77-76 on Feb. 22, 2014, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

The Stats

NOTE: The NCAA updates its statistical page only once a week, so I’ve decided to forgo using the rankings given that it doesn’t provide a real-time idea of where LSU stands. KenPom.com has player breakdowns and usage stats, so I’ll utilize those metrics in the Players to Watch section. If you have questions about the statistical categories, head here

LSU

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 75.3
  • FG %: 44.5
  • 3FG%: 34.0
  • FT%: 67.5
  • Rebounds Per Game: 39.9
  • Assists Per Game: 14.2
  • Turnovers Per Game: 13.8
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 109.3 (No. 84)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 70.2 (No. 31)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 17.0 (No. 73)
  • Effective FG%: 50.0(No. 145)
  • Turnover %: 19.4 (No. 252)
  • Off. Reb %: 35.9 (No. 38)
  • FTA/FGA: 34.3 (No. 313)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 70.8
  • FG% D: 40.8
  • 3FG% D: 35.8
  • FT%: 71.0
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.1
  • Rebound Margin: +3.8
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 10.9
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.1
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 99.1 (No. 65)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 17.1 (No. 39)
  • Effective FG% D: 46.0 (No. 49)
  • Turnover %: 18.4 (No. 173)
  • Off. Reb. %: 31.4 (No. 171)
  • FTA/FGA: 39.0 (No. 135)

Kentucky

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 76.3
  • FG %: 45.2
  • 3FG%: 31.6
  • FT%: 68.4
  • Rebounds Per Game: 41.3
  • Assists Per Game: 11.5
  • Turnovers Per Game: 12.4
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 113.7 (No. 29)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 66.4 (No. 178)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 17.3 (No. 104)
  • Effective FG%: 49.6 (No. 165)
  • Turnover %: 18.3 (No. 164)
  • Off. Reb %: 42.7 (No. 1)
  • FTA/FGA: 53.7 (No. 7)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 67.1
  • FG% D: 40.1
  • 3FG% D: 31.3
  • FT%: 69.8
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 31.5
  • Rebound Margin: +9.8
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 10.4
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 11.0
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 96.6 (No. 43)
  • Avg. Poss. Length:  18.4 (No. 256)
  • Effective FG% D: 44.7 (No. 20)
  • Turnover %: 16.2 (No. 302)
  • Off. Reb. %: 30.5 (No. 126)
  • FTA/FGA: 37.0 (No. 101)

 The Breakdown

Here, we look at three areas that may determine the game’s outcome. Stats are pulled from the most recent game notes, while advanced metrics are taken from kenpom.com or hoop-math.com.

  • Protect the lane: LSU and Kentucky haven’t exactly locked down on each other in their two prior meetings. LSU is averaging 81.5 points and shooting 45.4 percent. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are posting 79.5 points and hitting at 42.9-percent clip. In Lexington, gave up a lone 3-pointer as Kentucky had its worst days of the season from behind the arc. Not that it mattered. The Wildcats were hell-bent on attacking the paint. They scored 50 points inside, including 24 on second-chance points. The commonly held logic is LSU’s front line of O’Bryant III, Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin — all taller than 6-foot-8 — can match the size of Kentucky man for man.  And to a degree, they’re right. Julius Randle averages just 7.0 points and shoots just 31.6 percent against LSU. But the paint production comes instead from UK’s bigger guards — all taller than 6-foot-6 — blowing by the Tigers’ smaller combo of Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer, or exploiting the poor footwork and positioning of Martin. To wit: James Young has averaged 21.5 points. Aaron Harrison has posted 17.5 points, too. LSU only allows 29.5 points per game in the paint, while only allowing nine teams to score more than the 33.5 points LSU tends to notch. All of those teams had big guards that exploited on-ball screens and a poor job by LSU navigating screens. Last night, LSU switched more and it’s big men hedged harder to keep Bama’s Trevor Releford from getting downhill and putting pressure on low-post defenders to rotate. Still, Releford’s 2-of-11 shooting performance still saw him get to the line seven times. So, the question is whether the Tigers can carry over the success from Thursday and avoid giving up high-percentage shots.
  • Stretch UK’s comfort Zone: Ahead of their game at Rupp, UK had employed some zone looks, much to chagrin of a man-to-man devotee, in Calipari. Similar to LSU, the zone is as much an effort to cover for lapses in focus, poor positioning, or slow close outs than it has to do with maximizing length to clog up passing lanes or clutter up the low block. The antidote is readily available — knock down 3-pointers, make the Wildcats pay some sort of toll for trying to send fast double teams toward O’Bryant or shut down Mickey’s best operating spot near the elbow. “The 3 obviously can be a really big game changer,” Antigua said. “We’re going to have to try to see if we can use our length to make it a little more difficult for them so they’re not as comfortable.” The Tigers have done that twice, knocking down 40.0 percent of their attempts from deep against Kentucky. Hickey and Andre Stringer have combined to hit 10 of 21 attempts, too. If they can’t drive the lane and play in traffic, filling up the scoring column from 3-point shooting is an equalizer.
  • Lively minds, dead legs? As I pointed out yesterday, LSU’s rotation is down to roughly seven players. Nine saw action last night, but John Odo and Darcy Malone each only chipped in a minute. Four starters went at least 32 minutes, while O’Bryant logged 27 for the Tigers. UK, despite its widely-touted “best recruiting class ever,” only counters with a seven-man rotation of its own. Moreover, LSU hung with the Cats minus an injured Malik Morgan and absent Tim Quarterman, who didn’t travel to Lexington in order to attend a funeral. The Tigers’ nearly won with only two scholarship guards. But now LSU has to turn around in 22 hours to play against another fresh team, and one in UK that might be looking to build some momentum heading into the NCAA tournament. Yet the win over Bama wasn’t one played in the open floor. KenPom.com estimated there were just 59 possessions per team — roughly 11 below the Tigers’ average each game. Still, in this setting you can’t ignore fatigue, and we’ll see whether LSU has enough for a third go-around with the Wildcats.

The Players

In this section, we pick out a player for each side that could be pivotal or interesting to watch. It’s not always a starter or a star, either. 

LSU

  • G Anthony Hickey, Jr., 5-11, 185 pounds: Hickey is always quick to say he has no ill will toward Big Blue. His stat-line, though, says otherwise. He’s averaged 12.2 points and 4.2 assists in five career games against the Wildcats, but those have jumped to 15.5 and 7.0, respectively, this season. The Hopkinsville, Ky., native now has the UK staff answering for why they didn’t extend a scholarship offer. “Didn’t take a look at him as much because of our scholarship situation,” Antigua said.  ”But I know he’s done an incredible job there at LSU. I would imagine that he would be

excited to play us again.” That’s a safe bet. On this stage, Hickey would love to send the Wildcats’ packing. Yet he’s channeled that energy productively. Can he do it again?

Kentucky

  • F Julius Randle, 6-9, 250 pounds: You’d like to think, just based on the law of averages, that the SEC’s Freshman of the Year will bust his slump against LSU. Still, Randle’s been somewhat pedestrian in SEC play. If you look at his past 12 games, Randle is only averaging 11.6 points per game. OK, strip out the poor outings against LSU. It only climbs a smidgen to 12.8 points per game. His rebounding totals, though, haven’t dropped off and he’s still drawing 6.7 fouls per game. A breakout night, combined with UK guards slashing into gaps could doom LSU in this one.

The Line

KenPom Prediction: Kentucky 76, LSU 71 (68-percent confidence).

Needing to shore up NIT status, LSU tangles with the Tide

Johnny O'Bryant III and LSU will try to extend their season in a rematch against Alabama on Thursday at the Georgia Dome during the SEC tournament.

Johnny O’Bryant III and LSU will try to extend their season in a rematch against Alabama on Thursday at the Georgia Dome during the SEC tournament.

ATLANTA – Six weeks ago, LSU trudged off the floor at Coleman Coliseum after a loss that encapsulates the Tigers approach of taking a large leap forward and then tumbling back this season.

In an 82-80 loss on Jan. 25, the Tigers did the following during a 40-minute span:

  • Gave up a 22-0 run to trail by 13 points midway through the first half.
  • Shot 32.1 percent in the first half.
  • Trailed by 19 points with 17 minutes left to play.
  • Rallied back with an 11-2 run over two minutes to pull within four points with less than nine minutes left.
  • Forced 11 turnovers they turned into 14 second-half points.
  • Led twice within the final two minutes, including 77-76 with 1:10 to play.
  • Lost forward Shannon Hale on a switch, giving up a go-ahead 3-pointer with 46 seconds remaining.
  • Fought back despite allowing 60.6 percent shooting in the second half.

The above bullet points illustrate LSU’s clear case of split-personality disorder. Within the span of a lone game, they can at once appear doomed, a team clearly part of the SEC’s lesser lights. Yet they also possess enough grit — and raw talent — to overcome their flaws: a defensive intensity that comes-and-goes, smaller guards that can settle for jump shots, and a stagnant offense when Johnny O’Bryant III heads to the bench with foul trouble.

No matter your feelings on LSU’s season, there’s evidence to support both sides in a debate. So, the question ahead of their second-round tilt against the Crimson Tide in the SEC tournament is which persona wins the tug of war.

“You focus on what’s ahead,” guard Andre Stringer said Wednesday. “You can’t think about the past. We understand things happened, but this is a challenge that’s been placed in front of us, and it’s time for us to go out and execute and go on to win.”

Clearly, LSU coach Johnny Jones wants to accentuate “the positive things that really happened to us to this” and “how close we were on some other situations.”

Will today’s display mimic their dominant displays in Baton Rouge against KentuckyArkansas and Texas A&M? Or evoke irksome memories of road flops in Tuscaloosa, Oxford and College Station? What about playing in the largely sterile environment inside the Georgia Dome when the Tigers clearly thrive on a crowd’s energy?

“It starts inside our locker room,” O’Bryant said Wednesday. “You got to get your team pumped up. We are ready to play. We are really ready to come out and play. And that’s where it starts: Inside our locker room.”

Can LSU, a team allowing a dismal 78.3 points and worrisome 45.6 percent shooting in road games, find a way to clamp down Thursday?

“It’s refocusing, watching more film on your free time, knowing the player that you are going up against better,” Stringer said. “We played (Alabama) a couple times before, so it’s all about just executing and doing it.”

The ramifications are dicey if the Tigers’, who might be a dark horse behind top-seed Florida and No. 4 seed Tennessee, season ends today. The past week has made it clear LSU, a program that started the year with buzz of ending a NCAA tournament drought stretching back four years, could very well miss the NIT.

Yet the inverse is also possible: A string of victories that propels LSU into extending its stay over the weekend. The matchups against Alabama, Kentucky and, potentially, No. 6 seed Ole Miss or third-seeded Georgia are ones the Tigers could exit on top.

On Monday, Jones was tossed the usual question this time of the Gregorian calendar about whether his team needs to play as if its sturdy backs are pressed against a wall.

His reply: A little bit of both.

“We need to be playing at a certain level,” Jones told reporters. “When you have your back against the wall there is a certain sense of urgency that you have. That looseness is that you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself in terms of being able to perform that you’re playing too tight.”

 

The Info

  • When: 6 p.m. today.
  • Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
  • Records: No. 7 LSU 18-12; No. 10 Alabama (13-18)
  • TV: WBXH (Dave Neal, Jon Sunvold).
  • Series: Alabama leads 103-68.
  • Last Meeting: Alabama won 82-80 on Jan. 25, 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The Stats

NOTE: The NCAA updates its statistical page only once a week, so I’ve decided to forgo using the rankings given that it doesn’t provide a real-time idea of where LSU stands. KenPom.com has player breakdowns and usage stats, so I’ll utilize those metrics in the Players to Watch section. If you have questions about the statistical categories, head here

LSU

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 75.6
  • FG %: 44.3
  • 3FG%: 33.4
  • FT%: 68.0
  • Rebounds Per Game: 40.0
  • Assists Per Game: 14.1
  • Turnovers Per Game: 13.9
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 108.8 (No. 94)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 70.6 (No. 24)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 16.9 (No. 63)
  • Effective FG%: 49.7 (No. 160)
  • Turnover %: 19.4 (No. 254)
  • Off. Reb %: 36.0 (No. 35)
  • FTA/FGA: 34.8 (No. 305)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 71.3
  • FG% D: 40.9
  • 3FG% D: 36.1
  • FT%: 71.7
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.3
  • Rebound Margin: +3.7
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 11.0
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.2
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 99.3 (No. 86)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 17.1 (No. 35)
  • Effective FG% D: 46.1 (No. 52)
  • Turnover %: 18.5 (No. 166)
  • Off. Reb. %: 31.5 (No. 176)
  • FTA/FGA: 38.6 (No. 135)

Alabama

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 68.2
  • FG %: 44.7
  • 3FG%: 33.6
  • FT%: 69.1
  • Rebounds Per Game: 32.9
  • Assists Per Game: 11.1
  • Turnovers Per Game: 12.0
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 103.9 (No. 192)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 63.3 (No. No. 317)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 19.2 (No. 298)
  • Effective FG%: 49.5 (No. 176)
  • Turnover %: 20.5 (No. 301)
  • Off. Reb %: 30.3 (No. 214)
  • FTA/FGA: 42.8 (No. 107)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 67.2
  • FG% D: 41.6
  • 3FG% D: 30.0
  • FT%: 74.9
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 34.8
  • Rebound Margin: -1.9
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 11.7
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 12.9
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 99.5 (No. 73)
  • Avg. Poss. Length:  18.1 (No. 215)
  • Effective FG% D: 46.6 (No. 61)
  • Turnover %: 19.3 (No. 110)
  • Off. Reb. %: 34.5 (No. 304)
  • FTA/FGA: 42.1 (No. 213)

 The Breakdown

Here, we look at three areas that may determine the game’s outcome. Stats are pulled from the most recent game notes, while advanced metrics are taken from kenpom.com or hoop-math.com.

  • Make Releford irrelevant: This point is obvious. The senior, who has averaged 18.8 points and shot 50.5 percent from the floor, drives the Crimson Tide. In the first meeting with LSU, he had a ho-hum 21 points, and 17 of those came in the first half as the Tide nearly ran the Tigers out of the gym. So, it would seem apparent to Jones and Co. to stop him. Releford, though, presents a conundrum: He can attack the rim, shooting 41.0 percent of his shots at the tin and making 65.3 percent of those attempts. But he can also stretch the Tigers’ zone, hitting 39.7 percent behind the 3-point line. LSU appears intent on making him beat them from distance, or so they say. “The biggest thing is to keep him out of the lane,” LSU guard Anthony Hickey said. “They set a lot of screens to get him inside, so we just need to find him on the floor.” Does that mean solo coverage? LSU doesn’t switch screens, but in typical fashion now the Tide set a lot screens directly behind a player to let a guard plow downhill. “I’m sure we’re to try and lock him in the middle, and make someone else make plays,” Hickey said. Or think of it this way, too: “Staying attached,” guard Andre Stringer said. “Realizing where he is on the floor and not giving him easy shot selections, not letting him get out on the break and do what he does in the fast break. It’s a number of things.”
  • Outrun the Tide: The Tigers slashed-and-burned the Tide’s sizable lead by rolling out the press in Tuscaloosa. Not only did it generate points, but it got the Tigers six more possessions — 39, to be exact — than they had in the first half. It also yielded 11 more shots the Tigers than the Tide. Bama doesn’t want to run. They want to turn the game into wood chipper that chews up and spits out opponents. On Wednesday, Tide coach Anthony Grant hinted transition defense will be an area of importance. “Our ability to take care of the basketball and try to limit them from getting in transition (is key),” Grant said. Now, there’s the small matter of the Tigers’ bench being shorter since guard Malik Morgan, a 6-3 sophomore guard, went down with a torn patellar tendon in his knee against Auburn last month. It stripped the Tigers of another body, and length vital on the front of the press. “We don’t have a whole lot of options unfortunately right now because we’re only playing about seven guys right now,” Jones said. “This time of year games are so close and minutes are so important that it comes down to seconds and making plays. It becomes extremely tough. You’d like to try to find some time to get a little bit deeper maybe in your rotation.”  Still, the Tigers have managed to press during segments of games between spans of five minutes to 10 minutes, often when Jones wants to get LSU’s offense spurred in the open floor — the Tigers get 24.3 percent of their shots in transition, per hoop-math.com — or take slow teams out of their normal rhythm. It may mimic Arkansas’ brand of full-bore pressure, but keep an eye on when the Tigers deploy their own form of badgering. ”I believe we can press the whole game, but it will be coach’s call,” Hickey said. “We’ve got enough depth that we can swap in and out the whole game.”
  • (Puts on broken record) Again, defend the 3-point arc. LSU may well have won in Tuscaloosa had it not been for the Tigers’ on-going struggle to rotate, close out and contest teams firing away from long-range. The Tigers were dead last in the SEC by giving up 39.6 percent shooting from behind the arc. In Tuscaloosa, the Tide canned 7 of 9 3-pointers in the second half, and it wasn’t Releford wreaking havoc. Rodney Cooper hit all four of the ones he hoisted up. Hale went 3 of 4, the last one putting Alabama up for good. I’ll put it this way, if LSU holds Bama to 45.0 percent shooting inside the arc (the Tigers’ average and fifth in the SEC), they will have a chance if the Tide hit under 35.0 percent of their attempts from deep. Now the question is whether the Tigers, a team that struggles mightily on the road, actually execute.

The Players

In this section, we pick out a player for each side that could be pivotal or interesting to watch. It’s not always a starter or a star, either. 

LSU

  • G Andre Stringer, Sr., 5-10, 190 pounds: The Tide’s zone gave LSU fits at points in the paint last time they met. I detailed this a little bit in Wednesday’s notebook, but Bama made Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey play in a ton of traffic and clutter on the block. They went just 4 of 11 for a combined nine points. The solution is to stretch out Tide by punishing them from long distance. So, I’ll pick Stringer. He’s shooting 39.0 percent in road games this season from behind the arc. Hickey is at 37.5 percent, and it will be interesting to see which gets more open looks. Bama’s Retin Obasohan is a decent defender and may shadow Stringer, but he’s accustom to the attention. A big night from Stringer (or any Tigers perimeter player) is on Grant’s mind, too. “They have two dynamic guards that can really stretch you with the way they shoot the ball,” he said.

Alabama

  • F Shannon Hale, Fr., 6-8, 220: This was a run off with Rodney Cooper, who has put together some quality offensive nights, and Jimmie Taylor, a freshman filling in for the absent Nick Jacobs. Hale’s a pick-and-pop risk hitting 34.9 percent of his 3-pointers. Inside the arc, though, he’s shooting 49.5 percent, but only 32.5 percent of those looks come in the paints. If you can lure LSU’s bigs away or put them in a bind on whether to scramble back to help or protect the rim, Hale poses a threat. Granted, I like how Taylor has filled in as a post defender, but the Tide need some production from its big men scoring-wise to alleviate pressure on Releford, Cooper and Levi Randolph.

The Line

KenPom Prediction: LSU 70, Alabama 69 (57-percent confidence).

Is LSU really a lock for the NIT? How the Tigers could be sitting at home

LSU coach Johnny Jones watches his big men work through low-post drills during practice Wednesday ahead of the SEC tournament in Atlanta.

LSU coach Johnny Jones watches his big men work through low-post drills during practice Wednesday ahead of the SEC tournament in Atlanta.

ATLANTA – The prevailing thought before LSU arrived at the Southeastern Conference tournament was the Tigers appeared pointed toward a NIT bid.

Over the past week, though, events have raised to possibility that the Tigers could go wanting.

First, there was a loss to Georgia last Saturday, one that sent the Tigers’ slipping into the low 70s of the Ratings Percentage Index. On Thursday, the general consensus was LSU (18-12) is at No. 77 ahead of its second round game against Alabama.

That alone won’t hurt LSU. Last season, five teams with RPIs in the 70s made the field via at-large bids. But a numbers game could pinch the Tigers.

Already, nine regular season champions from mid-major and low-major conferences lost in their tournaments. Under NIT protocols, they automatically get invites to the 32-team field. Here’s the list:

  • FloridaGulfCoast
  • Belmont
  • Iona
  • Davidson
  • Robert Morris
  • Green Bay
  • High Point
  • Vermont
  • BostonUniversity

Nineteen conference tournaments are left, and already the NIT has hit its average of bids doled out to regular season champions. Chances are a couple more mid-major squads could be in the fold. The 23 at-large bids left right now would shrink even more if that takes place.

The latest projections from nycbuckets.com and The Bracket Project have the Tigers sitting as No. 5 seed — relatively safe territory. But LSU has to win tonight in order to simply keep its grip on that tenuous position.

Take a look at the RPI projections from WarrenNolan.com and RPIForecast.com: It barely moves if LSU wins, but a loss could send it careening into the low 90s. Under that scenario, it might be harder for LSU to squeeze into the NIT.

Right now, Georgia and Missouri, barring a run to the weekend that includes an upset of Florida to get on the NCAA tournament bubble, appear set for the field. If Arkansas can’t squeak in off the bubble, either, there go three slots for the SEC.

In the past decade, the SEC has averaged sending 2.7 teams per season to the NIT, and in three instances has gotten four teams in. So, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility the Tigers could still earn a slot. But remember how I said the number of automatic berths is going quickly? That may ultimately do in LSU if it can’t get by Alabama tonight. Last season, only two teams — Providence and St. John’s — made the NIT with their RPIs in the 90s. And that was with an average number of conference regular season champions getting in, too.

So, here’s the doomsday scenario, I guess: LSU falls to Bama, and two or more regular season champions from mid-majors bomb out before the finals of their postseason tournaments. And if Arkansas somehow winds up on the stoop for the NCAA tournament, chances are a third slot would wind up in the Razorbacks’ hands.

Naturally, the resulting question is how does LSU avoid going from a team some analysts thought in the preseason might be a NCAA tournament team to missing the postseason altogether.

Let’s look at the possible outcomes inside the Georgia Dome and what it does to LSU’s RPI:

  • 18-13 (0-1 at SEC tournament): 90.8
  • 19-13 (1-1): 77.8
  • 20-13 (2-1): 61.5
  • 21-13: (3-1): 45.9
  • 22-13: (4-0): In the NCAA tournament with automatic berth

The conclusions drawn are easy. Win one game, hold pat and hope the chaos dies down in mid-major tournaments. Win two games, with the second an upset of No. 2 seed Kentucky, and the Tigers significantly help their odds. Reaching the finals and losing would put the Tigers’ back in bubble territory for the NCAA tournament, but their resume — just 4-9 during regular season vs. RPI top 100 and a three sub-100 losses — would be pretty thin. But they’d obviously qualify for the NIT.

Obviously, all of this is fluid. But to be safe, it would appear the Tigers might need two wins to keep their season going past this week.

LSU trying to atone against Alabama

Anthony Hickey and No. 7 seed LSU go through their workout Wednesday ahead of 10th-seeded Alabama on Thursday at the Georgia Dome.

Anthony Hickey and No. 7 seed LSU go through their workout Wednesday ahead of 10th-seeded Alabama on Thursday at the Georgia Dome.

ATLANTA, Ga. – Good day from the lovely bowels of the Georgia Dome, where LSU is wrapping down a 45-minute workout as the No. 7-seeded Tigers prepare to face 10th-seeded Alabama at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Before taking to the floor, the Tigers and coach Johnny Jones spent roughly 10 minutes fielding questions from a small clutch of reporters. There’s not much new to pass along, but a few snippets will do.

Aiming for atonement

The question was about how LSU would fare in a fairly sterile dome environment, where there may be empty seats and a low decibel level, but Andre Stringer opened a slight crack to peer into the Tigers’’ psyche.

“Everybody’s excited, especially knowing how rocky our season was,” he said. “Some games we didn’t do as well in, and we’re anxious to play.”

Perhaps it’s solely a function of the bracket, but LSU may be a viable darkhorse — second only to Tennessee — to reel off a couple of victories and venture into the weekend.

The Tigers played well at the Old Spice Classic during Thanksgiving week, where they handled Saint Joseph’s, let a lead fritter away against Memphis and then rallied in overtime for third place in a victory over Butler.  That’s about the best gauge we have. The SEC schedule makers kept LSU from handling the dreaded task of three games in six days.

Granted, LSU may have little choice, either. Entering the day, they sat at No. 75 in the RPI, per CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm, and a loss to Alabama could send them tumbling into the low 90s. Under that scenario, it’s hard to see the Tigers making the 32-team field in the NIT. Downing Bama is a way to stave off that outcome.

One could argue the path after Bama is potentially favorable, too. LSU came within 3.9 seconds and a Julius Randle putback in overtime of a season sweep of Kentucky.  Moreover, LSU has the size along its front line to match up with the Wildcats. After that, there are potential semifinal opponents in Ole Miss, Georgia or Vanderbilt. The Tigers let a four-point lead melt in an overtime loss to the Rebels, but had a chance to win in the final two minutes. They swept the Commodores, but went 0-2 against the Bulldogs.

As could be expected, though, LSU didn’t deviate much from the same strain of thinking they usually employ.

“We just got to take it one game at a time,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “This is a four game season now. … You know you get one win, then you move on to the next, that’s how you handle business down here.”

So the Tigers aren’t interested in rehashing the loss in Oxford. Or rallying back from a 19-point deficit before losing at Alabama. Or one of their worst defensive outings in an 83-73 loss at Texas A&M. Or letting two leads inside the final two minutes of regulation and overtime slip away in Lexington.

If the Tigers had split those four games, they’d likely sit at 11-7 right now in the standings, and be positioned to either nab a NCAA tournament bid or improve their seeding in the field of 68.

The only way that happens now staying through Sunday.

“Everybody will be vying and playing and trying to put themselves in a position of these next few days to win the championship, cut down nets and, hopefully, at some point hang banners,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We happen to be one of those teams.”

Cracking the zone

Alabama’s identity is rooted on the defensive end of the floor, and the Tide’s approach stymied LSU in their first meeting this season.

Bama switched between 1-3-1 and 2-3 looks at junctures, and tried to orient its looks to take away looks in the short corner and at the high post — both places where LSU’s big men can catch the ball or play in high-low action.

Granted, LSU has also tended to start poorly on the road in SEC play. In six of their nine road games, the Tigers have shot under 37.5 percent in the first half. So, it’s probably best to view the Tide’s effort in the frame of the Tigers’ inability to get off to fast starts away from Baton Rouge.

Still, the Tigers will have to find a way to adjust.

“They have done a great job in terms of trying to guard the interior, trying to make you play up over the top and make sure that they put Johnny in traffic,” Jones said. “You have to make sure you shoot the ball well against them from the perimeter.

That’s true, but O’Bryant finished with 18 points on 6 of 11 shooting, while Jordan Mickey added 11 points and six rebounds.

Inside Coleman Coliseum, LSU’s guards did a solid enough job. Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer combined for 22 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 3 of 8 from behind the 3-point arc.

Switching into the press to force turnovers and get into the open floor helped LSU’s offense in the second half, too. The Tigers scored 57 points and shot 58.8 percent after halftime and managed to claw back into the game.

Still, Jones’ point remains: If the Tigers can stretch the Tide, it will create more room inside for O’Bryant to work and Mickey to dive cut from the elbow or spot for jump shots.

“You make it a little bit more difficult for them to stay back in their defense,” Jones said.

Is focus enough?

By now, the Tigers’ struggles defensively are well known.

Entering the SEC tournament, LSU ranks 12th in conference for points allowed (71.3 per game), seventh in field-goal defense (.409) and are 13th in 3-point field goal defense (.361) this season.

Away from the PeteMaravichAssemblyCenter, those figures are, well, they’re not pretty. LSU is letting opponents score 78.3 points and shoot 45.6 percent. They’ve also let foes knock down 44.0 percent of their 3-point attempts, giving up over 7.3 of them per game.

The question is whether the Tigers can find a solution.

“It’s just effort,” O’Bryant said. “You know what you got to do. You play a team twice already maybe this will be your third time, you know what you got to do. It’s just about just mentally ready and just going out and executing.”

Whether that heartens your faith in the Tigers, though, is up to you.

 

O’Bryant lands on All-SEC team on big day for LSU’s front court trio

Johnny O’Bryant III was named to the All-SEC team on Tuesday, nabbing the honor a second-consecutive season.

O’Bryant, a 6-9, 256-pound junior, averaged 15.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game this season for the Tigers, who open up the SEC tournament Thursday against Alabama.

The Cleveland, Miss., native is ninth in the SEC in scoring and fourth in rebounds, and he has eight double-doubles this season along with 25 for his career.

O’Bryant wasn’t alone in picking up accolades from SEC coaches on Tuesday morning. Freshman forward Jordan Mickey was picked second-team All-SEC, and landed on the conference’s All-Defensive team. Additionally, he and fellow Tigers freshman Jarell Martin were named to the All-Freshman team.

Mickey, who hails from Dallas, averaged 13.0 points per game and 7.6 rebounds with a league leading 96 blocks during the year.  He leads the league in block average both overall and in the SEC and his shooting percentage of 53.3 percent is second in the SEC. His rebound average is fifth overall in the SEC.

Martin posted 10.2 points per game this season, but bumped that to 11.4 points per game during conference play. The last time two LSU freshmen made the first-year team was 2006 when Tasmin Mitchell and Tyrus Thomas were selected.

On season’s final day, LSU can control destiny with a win over Georgia

One win doesn’t alter a season entirely, but it can change the trajectory.

This isn’t a revolutionary line of thought, but the notion looms over LSU’s rematch with Georgia today.

A win could put LSU in a tie for fourth place, likely earning the Tigers a No. 6 seed based on tiebreakers for the SEC tournament next week. While the rest of the seeding orbit would still need to align, the Tigers would already come ahead by avoiding Florida’s side of the bracket. If you’re a program in LSU’s situation, any breaks at this time of year are gifts openly received.

From that vantage point, LSU could carve out a path toward the weekend in Atlanta. The No. 3 seed will likely come from the trio of Georgia, Tennessee or Arkansas — all matchups where LSU could conceivably swipe an upset. Surviving the quarterfinals might net a third tilt against Kentucky, a No. 2 seed but also a group the Tigers came within 3.9 seconds of sweeping this season.

Whatever happens, getting to Saturday would be a boon for the Tigers, but we only know that because Johnny Jones affirmed a semi-final run is “pretty good.”

And seeding is certainly part of the equation.

“You want to win as many games as you can and see where you’re positioned,” Jones said. “Because if you’re winning games, that means you’re playing well, and you put yourself in position on a neutral floor (where) anything can happen.”

A victory over the Bulldogs would likely boost the Tigers to No. 59 in the RPI. Factor in a run to the semifinals, and LSU could finish 21-12 and hover around an RPI of No. 50, better known as bubble territory for the NCAA tournament. Snagging an at-large bid is likely not an option, though.

“They will have to make some noise in the SEC tournament to have a shot,” CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm wrote this week.

Jones would certainly like to force the 10-member selection committee something to stew over in their boardroom at an Indianapolis hotel.

“We have to really I think make it to the SEC tournament and make a great showing,” he said. “I think you have to get in there and play well. You have to leave it up to a committee to decide that.”

Still, a win today might pivot LSU into the right slot in the bracket to cause a ruckus. More likely, it helps shore up the Tigers’ standing when it comes to the NIT. Over the past decade, the SEC has averaged around three teams in the 32-team field. If the conference can get four teams into the NCAA field, it would likely leave Georgia, LSU and either Tennessee or Missouri as the likely contenders for the other postseason tournament. If it’s a run off between UGA and the Tigers, any advantage would help. 

What does a loss mean?

There’s a slew of permutations, and it’s unlikely LSU would fall below the No. 8 seed and noon tipoff next week at the Georgia Dome. Forget playing Florida in the second round, though. A first round loss to either Texas A&M or Ole Miss — both of whom enter today at 8-9 in the standings — might imperil LSU’s shot to reach the NIT.

How?

Well, LSU would be an 18-13 under that scenario, with its RPI tumbling to roughly No. 90. Considering the NIT field is set largely based off that number and the number of regular season champions that didn’t win their conference titles getting automatic bids, a squad that some saw as a potential NCAA tournament team might not make the postseason at all.

Perhaps it’s not equal to the bubble drama unfolding in Knoxville, where Missouri and Tennessee are staging an early play-in game for an at-large NCAA tournament bid. But there are still clear stakes when LSU and Georgia take the floor.

“We feel if we go in (to the SEC Tournament) on a two-game win streak, that would be really good for us, and we’d be excited about that,” Jones said. “We feel like wherever we’re positioned at that time would be good for us.”

 

The Info

  • When: 4 p.m. today.
  • Where: Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
  • Records: LSU 18-11, 9-8 SEC; Georgia 17-12, 11-6.
  • TV: FSN (Dave Neal, Larry Conley).
  • Series: LSU leads 62-43.
  • Last Meeting: Georgia won 91-78 on Feb. 6, 2014, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga.

The Stats

NOTE: The NCAA updates its statistical page only once a week, so I’ve decided to forgo using the rankings given that it doesn’t provide a real-time idea of where LSU stands. KenPom.com has player breakdowns and usage stats, so I’ll utilize those metrics in the Players to Watch section. If you have questions about the statistical categories, head here

LSU

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 76.1
  • FG %: 44.6
  • 3FG%: 33.9
  • FT%: 68.0
  • Rebounds Per Game: 40.3
  • Assists Per Game: 14.3
  • Turnovers Per Game: 14.0
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 109.8 (No. 82)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 70.9 (No. 21)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 16.8 (No. 61)
  • Effective FG%: 49.9 (No. 152)
  • Turnover %: 19.5 (No. 257)
  • Off. Reb %: 36.0 (No. 39)
  • FTA/FGA: 34.6 (No. 310)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 71.4
  • FG% D: 40.7
  • 3FG% D: 35.4
  • FT%: 71.7
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.2
  • Rebound Margin: +4.1
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 11.0
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.1
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 98.7 (No. 64)
  • Effective FG% D: 45.8 (No. 44)
  • Turnover %: 18.3 (No. 183)
  • Off. Reb. %: 31.2 (No. 158)
  • FTA/FGA: 38.6 (No. 128)

Georgia

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 69.2
  • FG %: 44.0
  • 3FG%: 34.6
  • FT%: 67.3
  • Rebounds Per Game: 37.6
  • Assists Per Game: 10.5
  • Turnovers Per Game: 12.8
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 107.3 (No. 120)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 64.4 (No. 280)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 19.4 (No. 306)
  • Effective FG%: 48.7 (No. 209)
  • Turnover %: 19.5 (No. 255)
  • Off. Reb %: 35.4 (No. 49)
  • FTA/FGA: 53.1 (No. 10)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 66.6
  • FG% D: 39.6
  • 3FG% D: 32.1
  • FT%: 72.0
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 32.7
  • Rebound Margin: +4.9
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 9.8
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 10.3
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 98.8 (No. 66)
  • Effective FG% D: 45.2 (No. 29)
  • Turnover %: 15.7 (No. 319)
  • Off. Reb. %: 29.7 (No. 95)
  • FTA/FGA: 43.6 (No. 248)

 The Breakdown

Here, we look at three areas that may determine the game’s outcome. Stats are pulled from the most recent game notes, while advanced metrics are taken from kenpom.com or hoop-math.com.

  • Mann down: I wrote about this already today, but the Tigers need in to find a way to keep Georgia out of the lane. Mann shoots nearly 43.7 percent of his shots at the rim, and converts 57.9 percent of them. But he also gets to the line in bulk. He’s shot 232 free throws, which is roughly double the amount of the next highest total on the Bulldogs roster. He went just 3 of 8 from the floor in the first meeting, but knocked down 9 of 13 attempts from the charity stripe. He put Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey in a bid trying to rotate at the rim after he slashed into creases. But he also dished out four assists, which hints at why he’s tied for fifth in the conference at 3.5 per game. Almost half of those are kickouts to the perimeter for 3-pointers, and guard Kenny Gaines (35.9 percent) and Nemanja Djurisic (47.8 percent) are capable jump shooters. But halting Mann requires bottling him up on the wing, and LSU’s guards again will have to find a way to keep him lashed down.
  • One-and-done:  Lost in the woeful effort defensively was LSU getting walloped on the backboards. Georgia entered that first matchup with a minus-8.1 rebounding margin. Yet they mustered a 37-30 edge against the Tigers front court that night. Much of that had to do with foul trouble among LSU’s big men (taking us back to the first point about keeping Mann out of the lane), but over the past eight games that Bulldogs have become a strong rebounding group. They have a plus-4 rebound margin since their first victory LSU. And it’s traveled, too. Georgia has a plus-5 rebound margin in their last four SEC road tilts. LSU has proven to be a better defensive team at home than on the road, and keeping the Bulldogs limited to one shot per possession is vital. It’s not the first thing fans will want to watch, but monitor how well O’Bryant and Mickey can keep Marcus Thornton and Donte Williams off the boards, a tandem that’s posting 11.8 rebounds per game over the lat half of the SEC slate. Both have been solid on the offensive backboards, sporting rebounding percentages of 10.7 (Thornton) and 10. 2 (Williams) this season.
  • Bring the blitz: In its past two home games, LSU has landed a right hook early. Against MississippiState, it was a 24-4 opening run. Trailing Texas A&M by eight, the Tigers tore off a 21-0 run to take a 28-15 lead. Since a loss to Tennessee, one where they never really contended in an 18-point setback, the Tigers have won seven in a row at the PMAC, countering the road woes they finally sloughed off their weary shoulders with a victory at Vanderbilt on Thursday. It will be senior day in Baton Rouge. O’Bryant said the Tigers are eager to see the Bulldogs again, hinting there’s a notion of vengeance taking root. Does that translate into a fast start? Will ending their seven-game road losing streak inject the kind of confidence veterans said might be the final ingredient needed for LSU to reel off a run? We’ll see.

The Players

In this section, we pick out a player for each side that could be pivotal or interesting to watch. It’s not always a starter or a star, either. 

LSU

  • F Johnny O’Bryant III, Jr., 6-9, 256: The big man’s struggles at Georgia were arguably one of the worst outings of his career. It’s also a blip on the radar. O’Bryant’s averaged 17.2 points and 9.2 rebounds over the past eight games, a stretch where he’s also had three double-doubles. Andre Stringer offset his roommate’s absent production with 19 points off the bench, but imagine how different the outcome might have been with O’Bryant on the floor an additional 15 minutes. Clearly, having him in the fold, and protecting him from foul trouble, will be something LSU needs if it’s going to even the score against UGA.

Georgia

  • F Nemanja Djurisic , Jr., 6-8, 230: The sophomore seems due. He went off for 17 points against LSU in Athens, and has been quiet ever since. Silent in that he’s averaged just 5.2 points in between the two meetings with the Tigers. That’s been offset recently with the increased production of Thornton, who’s posting 13.3 points per game the past two weeks. Still, Djurisic is a matchup issue because he’s more of a spot-up shooter as a stretch four. His 67 3-point attempts are second on the roster, and he’s shooting 47.8 percent from distance. He can platoon with fellow forward Brandon Morris but draw a post defender out slightly to space the floor for driving lanes, too. On the plays where Mann slashes, he can spot up and make opponents pay a price for paying too much attention to Gaines. LSU is still the worst team in the SEC at defending the 3-point line (38.6 percent allowed) during conference action. But inside the PMAC, they’ve yielded just 27.0 percent shooting from behind the arc in their past four games. Djurisic’s stroke might be a way to end that success.

The Line

KenPom Prediction: LSU 73, Georgia 68 (71-percent confidence).

 

 

LSU Lady Tigers snap 6-game losing streak with 78-65 SEC tourney win over Alabama

DULUTH, Ga. – Shanece McKinney and Danielle Ballard each scored 18 points and Theresa Plaisance recorded a double-double as the LSU Lady Tigers snapped out of a nightmarish six-game losing streak Thursday with a 78-65 victory over Alabama in second round of the SEC Tournament.

No. 10-seeded LSU, winning for the first time in exactly one month, improved to 19-11. The Lady Tigers advanced to face No. 2-seeded Tennessee at 5 p.m. CST Friday in the SEC quarterfinals.

No. 7 Alabama, which beat LSU 78-60 in Tuscaloosa on Sunday to close out the regular season, finished 14-16 in its first season under Louisiana native and former Louisiana Tech assistant Kristy Curry.

Running and sinking shots at a pace rarely seen in their recent outings, the Lady Tigers built a 25-point lead midway through the second half after leading 34-27 at halftime.

Alabama cut the deficit to 10 at one point but LSU pulled away at the free throw line.

McKinney also had a career-high 10 rebounds to go with her 18 points on 8 of 9 shooting and recorded four of LSU’s eight blocks.

Jeanne Kenney had 16 points while Plaisance, LSU’s All-SEC forward, had 12 points and 12 rebounds for her 16th career double-double.

LSU split with Tennessee in the regular season. The Lady Tigers won 80-77 on Jan. 2 in Knoxville and lost 72-67 to the Lady Volunteers at home. LSU rallied in that game from a 21-point halftime deficit to tie the score 59-59 with 3½ minutes left before Tennessee hit a couple of clutch baskets for the win.

The victory over Alabama likely erased any doubts of LSU’s NCAA tournament hopes. The Lady Tigers still possess the nation’s No. 12 RPI and No. 1-ranked strength of schedule.

LSU will host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games March 23 and 25 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

At Vanderbilt, Tigers’ run must start with a trot against ‘Dores

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – March momentum is fickle.

A case study inside the Southeastern Conference illustrates the fleeting and hard to marshal commodity, too.

Two weeks ago, LSU led by one point at Kentucky. ‘Cats forward James Young drove the lane, and had his shot thwarted by the tandem of Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey. A Tigers squad who had failed to come up with crunch time stops at Ole Miss and Alabama had its breakthrough — and one that might net a season-altering sweep of Kentucky.

Until the ball drifted into the path of UK forward Julius Randle. Shavon Coleman, worried about a crasher on the backside, couldn’t spin quickly enough. Easy, and painfully for LSU, Randle laid the ball in with 3.9 seconds left in overtime for the win.

Flash ahead five days later, and Arkansas — another middling SEC squad trying to cram into the soft bubble picture — waltzed out of Rupp Arena with a victory — one Kentucky gave away by clanking 10 of its 22 free throws.

On Wednesday night, the Razorbacks throttled Ole Miss by 30 points, and with a victory over Alabama on Saturday may enter the SEC tournament needing a little cleanup work for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and end a six-year drought without a berth. If they do, it will largely be on the back of a sweep that nearly belonged to LSU, too.

Instead, the Tigers enter this second duel with the ‘Dores at No. 69 in the RPI, and 8-8 in the SEC. Victories by Arkansas and Tennessee last night nixed any hopes for a double-bye in the SEC tournament, too. The best LSU can do is finish sixth. By all accounts, they’ll need a run deep into the weekend at the Georgia Dome to revive any NCAA tournament chatter. In all likelihood, their only option is to win the whole thing to snag an auto bid.

As I wrote about today, all the Tigers can do is start trying to muster up their own run tonight at Memorial Gymnasium.

Six weeks ago, when these teams met in Baton Rouge, O’Bryant used it as a means to break out of a slump after an overtime loss at Ole Miss — where LSU let a four-point lead melt away in the final two minutes of regulation — and pivot forward.

They’ll need to do it again.

Vanderbilt was shellacked by the largest margin in series history during a 76-38 loss on Saturday at Tennessee. The question immediately raised is obvious: Are the Commodores, who have just seven scholarship players, finally worn into fine dust? Because if they are, a LSU front court that bludgeoned the Commodores the first go-around may be primed for another big night.

Or will the Commodores rally for their seniors – Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller — when they take to the raised floor inside Memorial Gymnasium for the final time? If so, and LSU can’t notch a road win, then investing faith in the Tigers’ ability to reel off four wins on a neutral floors in consecutive days will take a further hit.

The Info

  • When: 6 p.m. today.
  • Where: Memorial Gymnasium, Nashville, Tenn.
  • Records: LSU 17-11, 8-8 SEC; Vanderbilt
  • TV: ESPN2 (Rece Davis, Bobby Knight).
  • Series: Vanderbilt leads 59-49.
  • Last Meeting: LSU won 81-58 on Jan. 18 in Baton Rouge.

The Stats

NOTE: The NCAA updates its statistical page only once a week, so I’ve decided to forgo using the rankings given that it doesn’t provide a real-time idea of where LSU stands. KenPom.com has player breakdowns and usage stats, so I’ll utilize those metrics in the Players to Watch section. If you have questions about the statistical categories, head here

LSU

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 76.8
  • FG %: 44.9
  • 3FG%: 34.5
  • FT%: 67.5
  • Rebounds Per Game: 40.3
  • Assists Per Game: 14.6
  • Turnovers Per Game: 14.2
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 110.7 (No. 62)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 71.0 (No. 22)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 16.8 (No. 63)
  • Effective FG%: 50.4 (No. 133)
  • Turnover %: 19.7 (No. 263)
  • Off. Reb %: 36.5 (No. 31)
  • FTA/FGA: 34.3 (No. 314)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 72.1
  • FG% D: 41.1
  • 3FG% D: 36.1
  • FT%: 71.8
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.1
  • Rebound Margin: +4.2
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 11.0
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.2
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 100.1 (No. 86)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 16.9 (No. 27)
  • Effective FG% D: 46.2 (No. 51)
  • Turnover %: 18.3 (No. 179)
  • Off. Reb. %: 31.5 (No. 180)
  • FTA/FGA: 39.2 (No. 141)

Vanderbilt

Offense:

  • Points Per Game: 65.0
  • FG %: 43.7
  • 3FG%: 32.2
  • FT%: 65.4
  • Rebounds Per Game: 34.5
  • Assists Per Game: 13.0
  • Turnovers Per Game: 13.3
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 103.9 (No. 192)
  • Adjusted Tempo: 63.3 (No. No. 317)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 19.2 (No. 298)
  • Effective FG%: 49.5 (No. 176)
  • Turnover %: 20.5 (No. 301)
  • Off. Reb %: 30.3 (No. 214)
  • FTA/FGA: 42.8 (No. 107)

Defense:

  • Points Allowed Per Game: 65.3
  • FG% D: 40.5
  • 3FG% D: 30.8
  • FT%: 64.1
  • Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.0
  • Rebound Margin: -1.5
  • Assists Allowed Per Game: 11.1
  • Turnovers Forced Per Game: 10.9
  • Adjusted Efficiency: 98.2 (No. 58)
  • Avg. Poss. Length: 18.0 (No. 195)
  • Effective FG% D: 45.7 (No. 40)
  • Turnover %: 16.8 (No. 273)
  • Off. Reb. %: 35.2 (No. 317)
  • FTA/FGA: 34.0 (No. 48)

 The Breakdown

Here, we look at three areas that may determine the game’s outcome. Stats are pulled from the most recent game notes, while advanced metrics are taken from kenpom.com or hoop-math.com.

  • Will Kyle Fuller get going? The Vandy point guard has struggled over the past four games, a stretch where the senior is averaging 8.0 points and shooting just 27.8 percent from the floor. More disconcerting, though, is that opponent’s have disrupted his ability to orchestrate the Commodores’ offense. His assist rate is a sterling 29.5 on the season. Yet during this span, where VU is just 1-3 and slipped in the standings, Fuller has just a 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio. His assist average of 4.3 per game is the same, but he’s been slightly more turnover prone. In the first meeting, LSU managed to check Fuller. He scored just five points on 1 of 9 shooting (his second-worst shooting night of the season), and had just two assists against five turnovers. Dai-Jon Parker averages 3.2 assists per game, but Vandy relies on him (and Rod Odom) to stretch the defense behind the 3-point arc. The Commodores rely on long-range shooting — they lead the SEC with 325 attempts from 3-point range. to offset having just one true post threat in freshman Damian Jones, and if Parker gives up his role as a deep-shooting threat, then it only leads to more concentrated defensive pressure applied on Odom during pick-and-pops behind the arc. To keep balance, and roles clearly defined, Vandy needs Fuller back operating efficiently.
  • Bruising, no matter the speed: LSU showed last week against Texas A&M, a victory where it had just 63 possessions, that they’re fine when the pace grinds. Realistically, if the Tigers can work the ball through the paint, then they’re hunky dory. Pounding the ball into the post wasn’t an issue the first time Vandy tried to slow the Tigers. LSU had a 40-26 edge in the lane and 24-9 margin in second-chance points. O’Bryant had 22 points and 12 rebounds, while Jordan Mickey added 13 points and Jarell Martin chipped in 11. If the Tigers can route the ball to O’Bryant and make Vandy pay for double teams, then plodding along won’t matter. Sure, LSU would love to run, and maybe Jones presses to stress the durability of Vandy’s short bench, but if LSU is mauling the ‘Dores front court, and then kicking the ball out for good looks on the perimeter, it won’t matter how fast or slow this one unfolds. Of course, it doesn’t help that Vanderbilt is 13th in turnover margin (-2.4) and average turnovers per game (13.3) per game. The Tigers didn’t have the benefit of a good matchup when they tried to run on Florida. Thursday, though, they might be able to push the pace a little bit without sacrificing the core principle of its halfcourt attack.
  • Again, defend the 3-point arc: LSU reverted back to its usual self at Florida by getting strafed from behind the 3-point line, giving up a 10-for-23 shooting night to the Gators. During its past seven SEC road games, the Tigers have allowed opponents to shoot 47.8 percent from long range. And that won’t do against the Commodores, who put up 20.3 attempts per game. If the Tigers don’t reform, and hold to their current percentage allowed, then the Commodores should be in line for nine 3-pointers on the night. That’s an additional 12 points or so for a team that’s only cracked the 70-point barrier three times in SEC play. Why does that matter? LSU is 6-1 this season when they do, and just 3-4 when opponents get over that hurdle. The easiest way for Vandy to pull that off is to get rolling from long-range. If the Tigers can mimic limiting VU to 5 of 20 from the 3-point line, they should be in better position to snap their current road skid.

The Players

In this section, we pick out a player for each side that could be pivotal or interesting to watch. It’s not always a starter or a star, either. 

LSU

  • F/G Shavon Coleman, Sr., 6-5, 195 pounds: If you need a guy to clamp down on Odom and Parker, then this is your top choice. Coleman will be vital to close out on the pair of jump shooters for LSU. Jarell Martin has proven vulnerable to doing so slowly, or getting a hand up to contest when the ball has already been released. He didn’t score in the first game these teams played, but doled out four assists, grabbed five rebounds, all the while playing solid defense and only being whistled twice. We know LSU can score the ball, but putting together a consistent outing on the defensive end when they leave the PMAC has been elusive. Coleman might be the proper antidote.

Vanderbilt

  • F Damian Jones, Fr., 6-10, 235: Nationally, the Baton Rouge native and Scotlandville product won’t get much pub. Yet he’s been one of the better freshmen. He’s averaging 11.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, and Jones has notched four double-doubles in league play, too. He’s not the same kind of rim protector as LSU’s Jordan Mickey, but he blocks 1.4 shots per game and can clean up on the defensive backboards. Quietly he scored 16 points in Baton Rouge  on 7 of 14 shooting. If you’re looking for an X-Factor, keep tabs on the freshman.

The Line

KenPom Prediction: Vanderbilt 69, LSU 68 (46-percent confidence).

 

Victories by Arkansas and Tennessee set LSU’s SEC ceiling at sixth place

Not much is certain in terms of sorting out the SEC.

But LSU can enter its final two games knowing it will need to reel off four wins in as many days next week at the conference tournament in Atlanta.

How so?

Arkansas (21-9, 10-7) and Tennessee (19-11, 10-7) both won Wednesday, meaning they can finish no worse than 10-8 in the regular season. Missouri (21-9, 9-8) led for all of 7.3 seconds, but fended off Texas A&M in a 57-56 victory to put 10 wins in play, too. LSU, for its part, could also sweep its final two games to finish with the same record.

No matter how you slice it, though, the tiebreakers don’t tilt in LSU’s favor.

Let’s look them over.

Scenario 1: Assume Missouri beats Tennessee, Alabama upsets Arkansas, and LSU takes down Georgia. This is the cluttered result:

  • Tennessee: 10-8
  • Arkansas: 10-8
  • LSU: 10-8
  • Missouri: 10-8

Under SEC tiebreaker rules, the group’s cumulative record against one another sorts out a pecking order. Missouri would be 4-1, earning the No. 4 seed. Tennessee and LSU would 2-2, with the Vols earning the No. 5 seed based on their head-to-head win over the Tigers. Arkansas would be the No. 7 seed with a 1-4 mark.

Scenario 2: Arkansas beats Alabama, Tennessee falls to Mizzou and LSU wins. Here’s the grid:

  • Arkansas: 11-7
  • Tennessee: 10-8
  • LSU: 10-8
  • Missouri: 10-8

Nothing changes, either. Mizzou would sit at  2-1 against LSU and UT, earning the No. 5 seed. LSU is 1-1, picking up the sixth seed. Tennessee would 1-2, and slotted as the No. 7 seed in Atlanta.

Scenario 3: Tennessee tops Missouri, Arkansas defeats Alabama, and LSU wins.

  • Tennessee: 11-7
  • Arkansas: 10-8
  • LSU: 10-8
  • Missouri: 9-9

This is easy to see unfolding. Arkansas and LSU split their season series, so we move on to another SEC tiebreaker to decide who is fifth and sixth in the standings. Under SEC procedures, the tie is broken based on who has a better record against the best team in the conference. If the tie still exists, you move down to the next team in the standings. So, LSU and Arkansas both lost once to Florida, and we move along to their records against Kentucky. The Razorbacks swept UK, while LSU split — painfully, too — with the Wildcats. As a result, UA is the No. 5 seed. LSU is slotted in the sixth position.

I don’t want to fathom the plethora of scenarios for the Tigers if they finish 9-9 when the regular season ends Saturday. But it’s clear LSU isn’t pushing for a double-bye anymore. If the Tigers are going to make a run, the best position they can attain is a No. 6 seed.

Metric Monday: Topping Vandy vital for LSU

There’s an old axiom taught to reporters: Don’t bury the lede.

So, here I go.

A win for LSU at Vanderbilt is paramount on Thursday, and not just for a confidence boost in snapping a seven-game road losing streak. On Monday, the Tigers were still in a four-team pack tied for sixth place in the SEC.

Here’s how the tiebreakers shake out.

  • Texas A&M: 8-8 (2-1, own tiebreaker over Ole Miss)
  • Ole Miss: 8-8 (2-1, lost to Texas A&M)
  • LSU: 8-8 (2-2)
  • Missouri: 8-8 (0-2)

That means coach Johnny Jones’ squad would be the No. 8 seed in Atlanta at the SEC tournament next week. Theoretically, they’d open up against Mizzou on Thursday, and, if they win, draw top seed and No. 1-ranked Florida on Friday in the quarterfinals.

Given the Tigers’ struggles on the road, their woes handling big guards (of which Mizzou has three), and what transpired Saturday in Gainesville, that doesn’t breed optimism that LSU might be able to make a run deep into the weekend.

Last Thursday, I tried to outline the scenarios facing LSU based on how it closed over its final three games. Winning all three is nixed. But a win over Vanderbilt would ensure LSU goes at least 1-2, and enters the SEC tourney with a RPI hovering around No. 67. That would leave them solidly in the field for the NIT.

Beating Vanderbilt produces two positive outcomes.

  • Puts a 2-1 finish in play, and a RPI around No. 58.
  • Give LSU a shot to go 10-8 in the SEC, and a shot — based on KenPom.com predictions – to finish in sixth place.

If LSU were to earn the No. 6 seed in Atlanta, their path would be markedly better: The winner of a projected matchup between No. 11 seed Alabama and Mississippi State, followed by a possible quarterfinal duel with third-seeded Tennessee. Upset the Vols, and the Tigers might get No. 2 seed Kentucky.

All of this is hypothetical, but beating the Commodores at least puts it in play. Meanwhile, the game at Memorial Gymnasium is considered a toss-up, too.

So, this post is short because, really, LSU doesn’t have many options left.