LSU’s Hickey, Carmouche provide defensive boost

During brief lulls in practice at the LSU practice facility, point guard Anthony Hickey got a snippet of advice about how to bolt across the open floor of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“You’ve got to pressure the ball,” junior guard Shavon Coleman said.

When followed to the letter, Hickey’s on-ball pestering is a tandem effort. Hickey’s lateral quickness forces the dribbler to turn his back on shooting guard Charles Carmouche, who at 6-foot-4 and 187 pounds provides added bulk and long arms to block any escape.

“He can pickpocket people a lot,” guard Andre Stringer said of Hickey. “Carmouche is a strong guard but has quick hands also. Those are two guys that pressure the ball pretty well.”

Yet it hardly matters whether it’s Hickey’s quick hands or Carmouche’s appendages that generate the gaffe. A successful pilfering act is the de facto ignition of the tempo that first-year coach Johnny Jones is trying to achieve.

Entering a final nonconference tilt at 12:30 p.m. Saturday for the Tigers (8-2) against Bethune-Cookman (5-9), the backcourt duo has proved one of the nation’s most adept pairs at swiping steals.

It’s a critical inheritance for Jones in his first season helming a program that, for the past decade, has been a trudging member of the Southeastern Conference, playing at one of the league’s slowest tempos.

“Our guys have held their own and played extremely well in those games in spurts,” Jones said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to in transtitioning to in the SEC.”

Despite missing two games, Hickey ranks fourth in the SEC at 4.1 steals per game, generating one on 7 percent of defensive possessions when he’s on the floor. That ranks second in Division I according to KenPom.com, an advanced statistics website.

Carmouche isn’t far behind. The New Orleans product’s 3.6 steals per game leave him five slots behind Hickey in the SEC, and his 5.4 steal percentage puts him 19th nationally based on KenPom.com data.

How unique is the statistical oddity? No other program boasts two players in the top 100, much less the top 20.

Yet there’s equal rarity of Hickey and Carmouche strolling onto the floor for the opening tip. Jones has penciled them in together for his starting lineup in just three times, but Hickey’s suspensions for violating team and university policies eliminated chances in a pair of games.

That’s coupled with Jones rolling out eight starting fives to mix and match various skill sets in hopes of finding the proper calibration.

“It’s a time when we can really get into our rotations and find out what’s our best combinations at certain times,” Jones said. “That what we utilize it for moving into conference play.”

In Hickey’s absence, though, Carmouche’s production remained steady the past month without shifting him solely to the point guard spot while averaging 8.6 points, 2.0 steals and 6.5 assists.

“It’s been really good for Carmouche just to be on the floor,” Jones said. “I’m not sure if (being without Hickey has) been great for our team because both of those guys are good on the floor together.”

Jones framed his lament in terms of the practical impact on the offensive end, where he envisions LSU putting up roughly 75 points a night.

“With Hickey being on the floor, it puts him in a position where he can possibly do even more because Hickey has the ability to create and get inside the lane,” Jones said. “It forces a defense to really get into its rotation and benefits Carmouche.”

Defensively, though, the presence of two steady on-ball defenders is a boon for a defense switching from a system under former coach Trent Johnson that was intent on forcing possessions to the baseline, where the Tigers’ size last season and zealous help-side aide were primary benefits.

Now for Jones, the mantra, instilled from the day he was hired in April, is converse.

“Now, it’s mano a mano,” Stringer said. “If he’s getting the best of you, then we have to try other people on him.”

Pestering the man charged with initiating a half-court set and shadowing the foe’s best perimeter threat goes a long way toward keeping opponents from clearing 65 points per game, the benchmark imposed by Jones.

So far, it has helped LSU force 16.2 turnovers per game, with 11.2 of those coming off steals — at times largely because of the efforts by Hickey and Carmouche.

“Anytime we see a ball rolling or have a chance at a steal, we’re going to take it,” Stringer said. “Or if it’s saving a ball by diving out of bounds, that’s the type of team we are. We’re a greedy team, and that’s what coach has taught us to do.”

Coleman, who is 6-5 and 195 pounds, is a guard-converted forward and provides a potential mismatch for traditional frontcourt players on the wing. But the move poses a risk when he has to defend on the low block.

So getting into transition is an equalizer. Through 10 games, LSU has averaged 71.6 possessions, which is third in the SEC behind Arkansas and Ole Miss and ranks No. 26 in Division I.

“That’s why we get so many steals and why we’re able to push the ball and get back so quickly,” Stringer said. “Our bigs are actually pretty fast, so it will work to our advantage.”

Of course, it helps when Hickey’s available to heed advice and press the pedal.

“We’ve got a fast guy in Hick, and that always help you get up and down the floor quick,” Coleman said. “That helps when it starts there.”