LSU basketball fans received what they had been waiting for all season Wednesday night at the PMAC.
Freshmen Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey were the stars in Tigers' 92-81 victory against Mississippi State. Martin scored a season-high 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Mickey contributed 19 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
"It felt good to see that (freshmen) were some of the main guys against Mississippi State," Mickey said. It had been a while since we were able to do that, so it felt good."
When coach Johnny Jones signed these two top-50 high school players, most people felt that they were going to immediately produce double-doubles every night. Mickey has been in the starting lineup from the first game, while Martin moved permanently into the lineup just seven games ago.
Martin has been a steady performer as he has averaged 14 points and seven rebounds per game. There have been just three times when Mickey failed to score at least ten points - Texas Tech, Ole Miss and the second Arkansas game.
There have been nine games in which Mickey has snagged at least ten rebounds. He has 86 blocked shots. Only two LSU freshmen have blocked more shots - Shaquille O'Neal and Tyrus Thomas. Mickey has made 56 percent of his field goal attempts and 74 percent of his foul shots.
Martin has been the freshman who has not had an easy time in his first season. On LSU's first possession of the campaign at Massachusetts, Martin suffered a sprained ankle. He missed the next two games. Martin spent the rest of the non-conference schedule getting healthy.
"It was hard at the beginning of the season," Martin said. "Dealing with my injury and people expecting me to come out and do a lot for the team put a lot of pressure on me. As the games go on, I am gaining more confidence and letting the game come to me.
"The older guys on the team helped me realize you have to let the game come to you and just play ball with the talent God gave you. You want to go out and have fun playing the game you love."
Martin was in the starting lineup for five straight games, concluding with the Southeastern Conference opener against Tennessee. In those five games, Martin averaged only eight points and four rebounds. He shot 39 percent (14-of-36) from the field.
Jones then put Martin on the bench for the next five games. In that stretch, Martin averaged 11 points and six rebounds. He shot 53 percent (18-of-34) from the field. When Kentucky came to the PMAC on Jan. 28, Martin was re-inserted into the starting lineup as the Tigers unveiled a zone defense.
Martin has been in the starting lineup ever since that night against the Wildcats. He has averaged 13 points and five rebounds during that span. Martin has made 48 percent (33-of-69) of his field goal attempts.
"Jarell is really flowing with what he's doing," Jones said. "He plays inside and outside for us. He has certainly been doing a good job of picking his spots. He is growing offensively. He can see plays developing out there.
"Jarell puts it on the floor and has been getting to the foul line. He doesn't mind putting it on the deck and creating contact, trying to finish at the rim. He is probably one of our most versatile players to be able to do that."
Martin is a unique player in that he is almost 6-foot-10, but can play on the perimeter. He is a 3-point threat (16-of-49, 33 percent) besides being able to drive to the basket. Martin spends some time in the post when Johnny O'Bryant gets in foul trouble. Martin does struggle defensively on the perimeter.
"My freshman year has gone pretty good so far," Martin said. "There have been ups and downs with us having some trouble on the road. Some of the things said about (freshmen) do put pressure on us.
"Jordan, Tim (Quarterman) and I try to look past all of that. We want to finish the season strong. When the time comes, we will see about the outside stuff. To get to the next level, you have to figure a lot of things out and become a smarter basketball player."
The immediate future for Martin, Mickey and their teammates is a rematch against Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers had their most impressive victory of the season against the Wildcats last month. Mickey and Martin combined for 23 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks.
"Kentucky's big guys are going to come at us early and get us in foul trouble," Mickey said. "We must have the same amount of energy there as we do at home. We have to provide our own energy. We're going up there for business. We have to play as hard as we did the last game against Kentucky."
Julius Randle, the Wildcats' star post player, had a miserable game in their 87-82 at the PMAC. Randle had just six points and five rebounds. He missed eight of his 11 field goal attempts. The only post player who had success that night for Kentucky was Dakari Johnson, who had 15 points and six rebounds.
"We have to play real aggressive like the first game," Martin said. "We have to go after them on offense and get their guys in foul trouble. I am going to play a complete game. I'll take what the defense gives me. I do want to start attacking on offense and get to the free throw line."