Johnny Jones trudged toward a side exit towing a rolling briefcase and halted a moment before pushing the door ajar and departing into an evening tinged with a breath-sapping snap of cold.
Jamming his hand into a pocket, Jones fished out a set of keys, ran his left palm over his face and mustered a slow shake of his head after an 82-73 overtime loss Wednesday to South Carolina kept LSU winless in the Southeastern Conference.
“The setback last night didn’t sit well,” Jones said.
Not even two weeks into their SEC schedule, the Tigers (9-4, 0-3) remain in the ignominious company of Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia in a four-way tie at the bottom of the league standings.
And Saturday, Jones’ squad will be lowered into the same crucible it faced against the Gamecocks: a meeting of programs desperate for their first SEC victory when the Tigers travel to Georgia (6-10, 0-3) at 7 p.m. CST at Stegeman Coliseum.
A must-win? Obviously.
“I’m pretty sure they’re just as hungry for a win,” LSU senior guard Charles Carmouche said. “I know we are.”
Unfortunately, stalking for a win after a losing streak to open SEC play is familiar terrain for LSU. Since 2000, the Tigers have lost their first three conference games five times — including an 0-12 slog three seasons ago en route to an 11-20 overall record.
Grim history aside, Jones said the program is keeping a narrow field of vision and is not worried about how hard it would be, given a loss to the Bulldogs, to steer the season back to placid waters.
“You don’t go into the year with predictions outside of how hard you’re going to play,” Jones said. “We will celebrate and look back on it at our banquet, but you can’t do that during the season. That’s got to be your approach because the games come too quick.”
The Tigers also parse a key distinction: Tangling with Georgia is a prime definition of a must-win matchup, yet there’s a rejection of the notion that LSU is in desperation mode.
“We’ve just got to get out of this slump that we’re in,” junior guard Andre Stringer said. “Obviously we’re not playing the way we normally play, but we are playing with a sense of urgency. I can say that.”
A dissection of LSU’s three conference losses presents a similar anatomy.
Auburn, Florida and South Carolina each employed variants of a zone defense to stall the Tigers in the halfcourt and force them to settle for jump shots. Of its 196 field-goal attempts in SEC play, LSU has tried 39.8 percent of them from behind the 3-point arc, which is third-highest in the conference. One problem: They are hitting at a 29.5-percent clip, which is fourth-lowest in the conference.
“We got to get to better shots because they’re taking away our initial shots,” said Stringer, who is hitting 23.1 percent of his 3-pointers in SEC play and has missed seven straight in the past two games. “Our ability to make second or third plays is what’s hurting us right now. We can’t take the quick 3s we normally take.”
Settling for jumpers is also a byproduct of lacking a consistent inside presence in the middle of the zone. Forward Johnny O’Bryant is still hobbled by a high right-ankle sprain that has left him limited in practice and prone to foul trouble. On Wednesday, he scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds but also fouled out and played just four of his 23 minutes in the second half — effectively robbing LSU of its prime post threat.
“Guys just haven’t been knocking down shots,” O’Bryant said. “We’ve been able to get what we want on offense. The hard thing right now is getting them to fall.”
Against South Carolina, LSU led 69-65 with 2 minutes, 41 seconds left in regulation but settled for 3-pointers on its final three possessions. Worse, all of those possessions lasted at least 25 seconds — a sign that LSU’s halfcourt set could not generate a closer look at the rim.
“We pretty much gave the game away,” Carmouche said. “That’s one of those games you know you definitely need to win. It’s just frustrating.”
The frustration percolates, too, knowing that LSU let a six-point lead earlier in the second half against Auburn wither away and failed to capitalize after frustrating Florida for 15 minutes in the first half of a 22-point loss.
“I know our is team is down,” Stringer said. “I don’t feel good about my play right now. Our ability to refocus and keep ourselves confident is very important.”
Asked whether he has a player he felt comfortable using as a proxy for his message in the locker room, Jones said the role has yet to be claimed.
“That’s part of the process throughout, and this is the time of the year where those start emerging,” he said. “You’re hopeful that someone will be able to rise up, but that’s not someone you can pinpoint, identify or vote into to do that.”
In the interim, LSU’s temptation to view a matchup with struggling Georgia as a balm to its woes isn’t minimal. The notion doesn’t exist.
“It’s the SEC,” Carmouche said. “I don’t think you can expect an easy game any night anymore.”