This is where the hard part comes in. This is where toughness comes in.” AntHony Hickey, LSU guard
Johnny O’Bryant III ducked his head, cracked a smile and tried to suppress a scoff that escaped as a chuckle upon addressing the obvious.
Entering the grind that is February in the Southeastern Conference’s schedule, LSU’s starting forward referenced the clichéd and metaphorical wall the Tigers have to scale before the calendar turns over to March.
“You’re pushing through injuries, pushing through fatigue,” O’Bryant said Tuesday. “School is in full swing, and it’s a grind now. You’ve got to be tough right now.”
And the position LSU (13-8, 4-6), good or bad, will find itself in as the season winds down could be traced back to its turn through gantlet of three games in five days, ushered in with a trip to woeful South Carolina (12-11, 2-8) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Colonial Life Arena.
Granted, one of the Gamecocks’ victories was snatched away from the Tigers, who ceded a four-point lead in the final four minutes of regulation and watched coach Frank Martin’s squad pull away in overtime during an 82-73 loss a month ago.
Worse, the first meeting came during a seemingly favorable opening stretch for LSU, which also featured games against Auburn and Georgia, but ended with the Tigers winless after four conference games and perpetually chasing .500 for the better part of four weeks.
The loss also exposed LSU’s woes with end-game execution. Case in point, O’Bryant, all 6-9 and 260-plus pounds, lofting a 3-pointer from the top of the arc on a pick-and-pop kickout from Hickey — or a less-than-desired role reversal.
“It was one of those games where you thought whoever had the ball last possession had a great a chance,” Jones said. “We had it, and had a chance to run one the plays we were looking for. Unfortunately, (we) didn’t get the right read.”
The dearth of closing gumption couldn’t be escaped in the locker room of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, either.
“After that game, guys just started saying enough is enough, and we have to find ways to step up and try to get wins,” O’Bryant said.
Unwittingly, the schedule makers at the SEC office presented a route to .500 whose path isn’t to treacherous to ascend against two peers in the conference basement. After trekking to South Carolina, the Tigers host Mississippi State (7-15, 2-8) at home Saturday, a Bulldogs team they defeated 69-68 on the road and down to just six scholarship players.
“We’ve had opportunities this year, and this is one more opportunity,” Hickey said.
“We’ve got to take advantage of it. We’re disappointed we missed a chance at Alabama, but we’ve got to get back on track.”
If the bodies comprising a bare-bones seven-man rotation are able.
Ten games into SEC play, Hickey, O’Bryant, junior guard Andrew Stringer and junior swingman Shavon Coleman are averaging between 29 and 35 minutes per game. Considering Jones regards 28 minutes a night to be an ideal burden, the Tigers are putting heavy mileage on their key contributors.
“This is where the hard part comes in,” said Hickey, who leads LSU in minutes per game.. “This is where toughness comes in. It’s about whose going to be tougher, and not about who we played yesterday anymore. It’s about having another game, and being ready in the now.”
What about O’Bryant, though, who has already endured a calf strain, high-ankle sprain along with constant pounding on the low block?
Again, O’Bryant snickered.
It’s just an occupational hazard.
“You’re never a 100 percent,” O’Bryant said. “No matter what percent I am, I’ve got to go out and give this team whatever I can, all I’ve got . I’m feeling fine that way.”
For his part, Jones references the taxing toll experienced by NBA brethren, whose 82-game regular season and travel demands exert a greater toll. Next, he contrasts that wringer to the 30-game schedule facing LSU, which, aside from this week, offers up games and practices at regular intervals.
“Our guys are young enough to do it, but also old enough to accept that responsibility,” Jones said. “Good teams do. You can’t point to those top teams in the country and say, ‘They’re not making any excuses.’ ”
Yet those groups, such as SEC leader Florida, tend to have a clutch of experienced upperclassmen at their disposal to serve as examples for moderating physical effort in practice and demonstrating the appropriate mental focus to digest scouting reports on a quick turn.
Not so much in Baton Rouge. Since the 2010 season, LSU has never ranked higher than No. 231, which is this year, in average years of collegiate experience, according to KenPom.com.
So in a vacuum of experience, the task falls to Hickey and O’Bryant, both sophomores, to serve as exhibits.
“I’m young, but somebody’s got to take leadership right now, and I want that leadership (role) for this team,” Hickey said. “I want to be the one pushing them when they think they can’t go no further. I want to push everybody else.”
Meanwhile, Jones has tried to adjust the workload to avoid overworking his core.
He gave them off Sunday and Monday, which the Tigers used for academic work. On Tuesday, they practiced at full speed before traveling Wednesday and emphasizing nuances of the scouting report.
LSU will stick primarily to scout work of State on Friday before an early tip Saturday.
On Sunday and Monday, Jones will moderate the workload before a road trip to Tennessee.
Tweaks aside, Jones’ underlying philosophy won’t change.
“You’re going to be banged up if you’re playing hard and giving a certain kind of effort,” he said.
“Tough teams are able to play through it.”