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February 18, 2014

Winning one game is new goal for Tigers

Two double-digit road losses have changed the atmosphere surrounding the LSU basketball program.

With a RPI of 70, talk about participating in the Big Dance has all but ceased. With defeats against Texas A&M and Arkansas - teams with less than .500 Southeastern Conference records, the Tigers must now try to avoid their first three-game losing streak in more than a year.

At least, LSU will return to the PMAC where it has won five consecutive conference games for its next contest - against Mississippi State - on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs are just the opponent needed by the Tigers. Mississippi State, which is on a seven-game losing streak, is tied for last place in the SEC.

"We get another chance to compete at a high level," senior wing Andre Stringer said. "We get another opportunity to get a victory. What is most important right now is Wednesday's game, not the NCAA tournament. We need a victory no matter how. The most important thing is getting the 'W.'

Everyone knows the SEC script being written by this LSU squad - good at home (5-1) and bad on the road (1-5). The Tigers have struggled on the defensive end away from the PMAC. In its five-game road losing streak, each opponent has scored at least 81 points.

LSU has been better defensively during its five-game road winning streak, but just slightly. In two of the Tigers' last three home games the opponent has reached the 80-point mark.

A year ago, LSU permitted five of 18 SEC opponents score at least 80 points. Through 12 conference games this season, seven opponents have scored 80 points. That's the highest total in 20 seasons. In 1994, the Tigers gave up at least 80 points in 11 of 16 SEC games. The league record that year was 5-11.

"One of the main reasons we are not as good defensively this year is that we can't be as physical last year," Stringer said. "The changes in how you can defend have shaken up how we play. I used my low center of gravity to get under people. I used my arm and hips, but that's an automatic whistle this year.

"You have to take angles when playing defense now. Now, you should never make excuses. The rules are the rules. I am trying to stay away from fouls. There was a lot more physicality on defense last year. We have to find ways to defend better."

Junior post player Johnny O'Bryant agreed with Stringer in that the way the game is being called is affecting LSU's defense. Teams like Georgia and Auburn have scored at will in the paint against the Tigers' talented front line of O'Bryant, Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin.

"With the rule change, post defense is different," O'Bryant said. "Guys are using a lot of angles to get to the basket. It's hard to guard one-on-one in the post. Guys are getting to the free throw line more."

In the seven SEC games in which LSU has allowed at least 80 points, the opposition is shooting almost 27 free throws per game. Georgia, which scored 91 points against the Tigers, was 32-of-46 at the foul line.

Junior point guard Anthony Hickey has another explanation for LSU's defensive woes. The Tigers' on-ball defense needs to improve.

"A lot of our problems on defense come from penetration," Hickey said. "We are gambling a lot. We haven't trusted each other. If a man gets by you, you have to trust that somebody will be there to pick him up. We are not pressing a lot this year, so my steals are down."

A year ago, LSU was almost strictly a man-to-man team. The Tigers came out with a zone defense against Kentucky. But, opposing teams have started to solve that defense. Both Texas A&M and Arkansas made ten 3-pointers. They were a combined 50 percent (20-of-40) on treys.

"You need communication and good rotations to play a zone defense," Stringer said. "Everybody has to be busting his tail. We haven't located shooters when we are in the zone. We are not closing fast enough on guys and we are giving them stand-alone 3s.

"You have to work in a zone. It's tough playing a zone against athletic guys. They shoot or get the ball in the middle and shoot it before we get somebody there."

LSU coach Johnny Jones indicated that he will use both zone and man-to-man during the last three weeks of the regular season.

"We will continue to mix (defenses) up," Jones said. "Teams have shot well against us and knocked down 3s whether we have been in zone or man. We have to handle the penetration and then get out on shooters. Sometimes, we are not closing out on the shooters hard enough to get them out of rhythm."

LSU finds itself in a situation where it must win at least one road game to have a winning conference record for the first time in five seasons. Two of the Tigers' last three road games are against Florida and Kentucky, the SEC's only ranked teams. The third trip is to Vanderbilt.

"We have to be hungrier," Hickey said. "We're down and out right now. What are you going to do? We have to fight. We have put ourselves in this situation. We have to get ourselves out of this situation. We have to be more determined."


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