The LSU Tigers were 8-0 in the SEC, preparing for a game against 0-8 Vanderbilt. They were completely in control of the SEC race. No, they weren’t going to go 18-0. No, they weren’t going to sweep through the rest of the schedule.
By Matt Zemek
There were going to be some rocky points in the journey to the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. However, this road has become more bumpy than the Tigers expected and hoped. They blew the game against Vanderbilt, the difference between being tied for the SEC lead and being one game behind Kentucky. That was the costliest loss of the three the Bayou Bengals have endured in recent weeks. The Auburn and Alabama losses didn’t help, but those were genuinely tough road assignments. The Vanderbilt loss is the equivalent of walking the pitcher with two outs to bring up Mike Trout.
Now, precisely because of three SEC losses, this Tuesday’s game against Kentucky is a must-win for LSU if Will Wade’s team is to successfully defend its 2019 SEC regular-season championship. If the Tigers want to once again be the No. 1 seed at the SEC Tournament, they have to win this game. It’s that simple. Let’s look at what needs to happen for LSU to get this job done.
1 – 3-point defense
LSU controlled opponents from the 3-point arc when it bolted to an 8-0 SEC record. LSU did not allow opposing teams to get hot very often, and when opponents did get hot from long range, they didn’t STAY hot. LSU found ways to cool off opposing shooters from 3-point range. That was part of the formula LSU used to win games late. The Tigers shut down opponents in the final five to seven minutes. They locked down when they had to.
In the recent three-game losing streak, it is very clearly the defense which has lagged for LSU. This is the end of the floor where the Tigers have lost their winning edge. One could generally refer to “defense as a whole” as the reason for LSU’s slippage, but 3-point defense needs to be placed in its own set-aside category.
LSU allowed Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Alabama to hit double-digit amounts of 3-pointers. Yes, all three of those team hit some tough shots, but when teams are making 12 or more threes – as all three of LSU’s SEC conquerors have done (Alabama made 13 this past Saturday) – it’s not just a matter of one or two lucky shots. LSU must regain its defensive dominance at the 3-point arc. If it can do that against a Kentucky team which is not reliable from downtown, it stands a very good chance of winning.
2 – Defense as a whole
Here is where we will focus on defense more broadly as a source of LSU’s woes.
If you look at the Alabama game, the problem wasn’t just the 13 3-pointers Alabama made; it was everything. Alabama hit a reasonable (if not spectacular) percentage of shots. It attempted 26 free throws. It committed only nine turnovers. Generally, a great defensive performance involves a low shooting percentage from opponents and a high number of turnovers. Great defense completely thwarts the opposition, both when it attempts shots and when it tries to maneuver the ball to create a shot attempt. Good defense achieves at least one of the two – it either reduces the shooting percentage or increases the amount of turnovers.
LSU didn’t do either against Alabama. The Tigers didn’t even rebound well, allowing 13 offensive boards to the Crimson Tide.
LSU can’t win this game if it doesn’t at least forge one significant achievement on defense. LSU needs to aim for dominance, but if it can’t attain dominance, it must at least do a lot of damage in one or two statistical categories on defense.
3 – Veterans
Skylar Mays and the other players who have been at LSU for a long time – players who have grown with the program and have evolved into high-level players able to engineer a long-sought transformation in Baton Rouge – know this is the biggest home game of the season. Role players are important. They certainly aren’t peripheral to a victory. Yet, this is a game made for Mays and the other leaders on this team. This is a game which calls for leadership.