After talking it out, LSU men aim to respond at South Carolina

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU coach Johnny Jones talks to guard Anthony Hickey during a Dec. 28 game against McNeese State in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- LSU coach Johnny Jones talks to guard Anthony Hickey during a Dec. 28 game against McNeese State in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

On Wednesday afternoon, the LSU men’s basketball team assembled in its plush locker room to try to escape its collective funk.

Two lethargic losses in a row spawned a two-hour airing of grievances — commonly dubbed a team meeting.

You know the drill: Gripes are spewed. Frustrations are laid bare. Questions are pointed. Unfiltered honesty is tapped and distilled as constructive criticism.

“There were some things that needed get put out on the table,” senior guard Andre Stringer said. “There was some venting going on. It’s good for our team to listen to everybody’s opinion.”

Getting upset by mid-major Rhode Island and then tottering in an 18-point loss Tuesday to Tennessee injected LSU (9-4, 0-1 SEC), which faces South Carolina (7-7, 0-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, with a sense of urgency that coach Johnny Jones coveted the past month.

Or so the Tigers can only hope.

There are correctable issues, such as not being in a shooter’s face on the catch or correctly discerning whether to hoist a 3-pointer or attack the paint to get to the rim or the foul line. And there’s the question of whether halfway through the season LSU’s modest demeanor is the bigger issue.

“I can’t say it’s wavered,” Stringer said of the team’s intensity. “It’s still been high. That’s the competitive nature that we have as a team. In the heat of battle, you get hit ... and sometimes you fall. This is our opportunity to show every one we can get up.”

On Thursday, the prevailing theme was that time is still on LSU’s side to sort out whatever maladies are slowing a squad that still harbors NCAA tournament aspirations and was pegged in the preseason for a fourth-place finish in the SEC.

“We’ve got 17 more games,” sophomore guard Anthony Hickey said. “It’s about what we do from now on.”

True, but the folks in the SEC office who slapped together the Tigers’ early conference slate created the basketball equivalent of a load test.

Looming are tough trips to Ole Miss and Alabama — venues where LSU historically struggles — and vital home games against Missouri and Kentucky slated for later this month. For those scoring at home, the docket holds four games against RPI top-100 foes.

An optimist sees opportunity for LSU, which is No. 76 in the NCAA’s first weekly release of ratings. Notch a few wins, and you blot out that bad loss to Rhode Island, which is No. 175 in the RPI.

That’s where the Gamecocks, who have 12 underclassmen in the second year of Frank Martin’s rebuild, factor in. On paper, it’s a chance for LSU to swipe a road victory over a squad picked to finish near the SEC cellar and without guard Bruce Ellington, the two-sport star who declared for the NFL draft last week.

But fall short at Colonial Life Arena, and echoes of last season’s 0-4 SEC start getting dredged up — a memory LSU quickly shuns.

“We’re not even in a hole right now, so we don’t even think about it,” junior forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “We’re just getting ready for South Carolina.”

To avoid that, the Tigers will need to overcome their propensity for slow starts, idling energy, a lack of toughness on the glass and find focus defensively and for an offense that bogs down in the half court.

“We’ve got to screen better, we’ve got to cut harder and we’ve got to able to do all those things,” Jones said. “That’s a sign of mental toughness when you’re able to prepare yourself to grind that out for 40 minutes.”

On defense, the Tigers have said there has not been enough chatter nor enough focus on small details such as hedging hard on screens and closing quickly on shooters.

“There are a variety of things we have to improve,” Jones said. “We may have taken a step back so to speak in the last game probably because we weren’t communicating as much.”

So for the Tigers to call a meeting — and conduct smaller side chats — is a break from character. So what, pray tell, were some of the critiques?

“Everything,” Stringer said.

OK. So what are some areas that can be cleaned up, refined or tweaked?

“I can’t put my hand on one thing,” Stringer said. “We’re suffering in a lot of areas right now. We need a vocal leader right now. Our intensity hasn’t been what it was at the start of the season.”

Twenty minutes after Tennessee walked out of Baton Rouge with a victory, Jones was asked what members of his roster are providing focus and consistency on a daily basis. He replied with Shavon Coleman, who may be inserted in the starting lineup Saturday, and freshman forward Jordan Mickey.

Notably absent? Veteran starters Hickey, Stringer and O’Bryant, all of whom said Thursday they need to do a better job setting the tone.

“Coach hit it on the head when he said our older guys haven’t been as vocal,” Stringer said. “That will change here now, starting today.”

Venting, though, won’t matter if it doesn’t alleviate that lingering tension.

“You can’t stress over that,” O’Bryant said. “This team will be where it needs to be.”