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March 1, 2014

Defensive upswing to get tested at Florida

The game of basketball simply comes down to putting the ball in the basket.

LSU has played 27 games heading into its contest against top-ranked Florida on Saturday afternoon in Gainesville. In those games, the team with the higher field goal percentage has a 25-2 record. The two losers were LSU against Memphis and South Carolina against the Tigers.

When LSU has made at least 44 percent of its field goal attempts, it has a 12-4 record - certainly good enough to be a NCAA tournament team. Therefore, the Tigers are a .500 team (5-6) when they fail to shoot 44 percent from the field.

But, a more telling statistic occurs when the opposition is playing offense. When LSU limits its opponents to less than 44 percent shooting from the field, it has a 14-2 record. Both of the defeats came in overtime - at Ole Miss and at Kentucky. Therefore, LSU has a 3-8 record in the rest of its games.

The Tigers have held their opponent to less than 44 percent shooting in five games away from the PMAC. There have been victories at Texas Tech and at South Carolina and a neutral site victory against Butler.

There has been an improvement in LSU's defensive performance the past two games. Kentucky shot 42 percent from the field in its 77-76 overtime victory last Saturday. Texas A&M made just 31 percent of its field goal attempts in the Tigers' 68-49 victory Wednesday night.

Three-point defense has been a problem during the SEC schedule. The Wildcats and the Aggies were a combined 5-of-26 from behind the 3-point line. LSU has utilized both zone and man defense in recent games.

"We've shown that we are able to change defenses effectively," Tigers coach Johnny Jones said. "Because of the makeup of our team, we're able to play different styles. We have a style we have a preference of playing because we like to play quick.

"Against Texas A&M, we showed that we can defended throughout the (shot) clock. We were patient when they made their cuts. If you're not there on the catch, they take advantage of you. We did a much better job of pushing them off their spots."

LSU will need to pack its defense on the trip to Florida, which prides itself on stopping the opposition. The veteran Gators are not an explosive offensive team. Coach Billy Donovan has Florida playing old-time basketball.

The Gators are averaging a non-spectacular 71 points per game. But, Florida opponents are scoring just 59 points per game. The Gators are limiting their opponents to 40 percent field goal shooting. In nine of Florida's 15 conference games, the opponent hasn't reached 60 points.

"Florida is real aggressive," Jarell Martin said. "They have a great defense. On offense, they like to slow it down and execute. We have to hit them with the first punch. We have to defend well. We don't want Florida to get out to a great start."

Florida, which clinched the outright SEC title in the last four seasons when Kentucky lost to Arkansas on Thursday, has had three straight tight games. The Gators have defeated Auburn, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt by a combined 12 points. None of the margins of victory has been greater than five points.

"Their ranking does it all," Anthony Hickey said. "They are the No. 1 team and they will be playing on their home court. We have to focus like we always do. Florida plays defense for the whole shot clock. But, we have been doing better defensively. We have been keeping guys in front of us."

Hickey will be involved in a key matchup Saturday. Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin has been its most valuable player. Wilbekin, a senior is averaging 14 points and four assists per game. Hickey is averaging nine points and four assists per game.

"Wilbekin penetrates well," Hickey said. "I have to use my speed to keep him out of the lane. Wilbekin makes them go. I have to push the ball and try to run the court. I have to run my team for 40 minutes."

Donovan has built his team in a different manner than John Calipari at Kentucky. Four of the seven players in Florida's rotation are seniors - Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete. Those four players are contributing 44 points and 20 rebounds per game.

"Florida is a well-drilled team," Jones said. "They really trust each other on the floor. Being senior dominated means they have great leadership. They have been in close games this year. They know who to go to at the end. They have been able to close games.

"They are good on defense because of their experience. That is not something that is going to happen overnight."

Jones has seen his team play better defensively in the past two games. He knows LSU must perform its best to have an opportunity to knock off a No. 1-ranked team for just the fourth time in school history.

"We have done a good job guarding the 3-point line the last two games," Jones said. "Teams had been hurting us there. Kentucky made one 3-pointer and Texas A&M four.

"We are also guarding the rim better. Those are areas we have to continue to do well and we have to rebound to stop second chance opportunities. We have to be hitting on all cylinders this weekend - defense, rebounding and communication."


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