LSU relying on O’Bryant, front line against Rebels

Perhaps in a parallel universe, Johnny O’Bryant III jogs onto the hardwood at the Tad Smith Coliseum to cheers instead of boos Wednesday.

On the sideline, the forward confers with Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy. After posting up, the Mississippi native sticks his hand in the air to catch entry passes from Jarvis Summers.

Around the rim, he’d tussle for rebounds as the heir apparent to the stout and brawny legacy left by Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway.

Instead, O’Bryant will don the purple and gold of LSU (10-4, 1-1 Southeastern Conference), which faces the Rebels (10-5, 1-1) at 8 p.m., and headlines a Tigers front line in a battle of rosters with revamped big men.

And Kennedy makes it plainly clear he rues the recruiting miss of O’Bryant.

“Very painful,” Kennedy said. “I certainly wish he was wearing the red, white and blue.”

Oh, and O’Bryant, who is still the prime threat on the block, is stocked with support under the rim.

By now, freshman Jordan Mickey, who is posting 14.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, has carved out his niche.

The lithe 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward can clean up around the rim, while shot-blocking prowess — his 3.5 swats per game are second in the SEC — from the help side affects how quickly opposing big men operate inside.

And Jarell Martin, who has struggled with a high-ankle sprain and transitioning to small forward, is coming off a career-high 18 points against South Carolina after a move to the bench.

“They’re really, really talented,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got to be very physical. We’ve got to keep our bodies on them. We can’t come into this game thinking we’re going to out-jump them or out-reach them.”

Advantage aside, there’s the matter of how assertive LSU will be in punching the ball inside.

Over the past two games, getting concerted touches and quality looks from close range have been tough. On average, the Tigers’ trio gets roughly 12 shots at the rim per game, a number that slipped to just seven against Tennessee and South Carolina.

The lack of touches might be partly the product of LSU balancing its desire to run — it ranks No. 46 nationally at 70.6 possessions per game — with the fact its best source of scoring is from the block.

So at times, it can create an identity crisis.

“Sometimes, we will quick-shoot the basketball,” Jones said. “We haven’t moved it enough to allow the post guys to make certain cuts and get the looks that we want inside-out prior to the backside of what we want to do at the end of a shot clock or at the end of our offense.”

Patience might be prudent Wednesday, though.

Ole Miss forwards DeMarco Cox, Aaron Jones, Sebastian Saiz and Anthony Perez are foul prone — averaging between 4.0 and 4.7 whistles per 40 minutes, according to KenPom.com.

The contrast is stark when laid against the fact Ole Miss’ burly duo of Buckner and Holloway bruised LSU for 25 points and 15 rebounds in an 81-67 victory in Baton Rouge last season.

“Those guys just had that brute strength,” Jones said.

Oh, and they had a bit of a mean streak, too.

Only 12 seconds into that loss, Holloway body slammed LSU’s Charles Carmouche to Pete Maravich Assemby Center floor as he slashed off the left wing. The lesson? Enter the lane at your own peril.

“They were just seasoned, veteran guys that played with a lot of toughness,” O’Bryant said Thursday. “Those guys they lost were just well-oiled machines.”

Illustrating once again why Kennedy would covet O’Bryant posting up Ole Miss on the block, a location where the Rebels coach said there might be a shake-up if Cox and Jones can’t produce.

“I have not been as pleased with our production as we need to be as a front line unit,” he said Monday.

The formula for the Tigers seems easy: Pound the ball inside to O’Bryant and Mickey, while allowing Martin to exploit matchups outside, for chip shots or trips to the foul line.

“I think there might be mismatches, but we’ve just got to make sure that I’m aggressive and attacking on offense,” Martin said.

Running up the foul count puts more pressure on Ole Miss back court, which handles 61.1 percent of the Rebels scoring and takes 55.7 percent of their shots.

There’s also potential to put Ole Miss, which enters with a minus-2.5 rebounding margin, in a hole on the glass.

For LSU, dominating rebounding column chokes off a source of Rebel offense, too. Cox and Jones rely on putbacks and slipping to the rim after screening for Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers as a source of points.

“We’ve got to be very physical at the point of attack,” Kennedy said. “We call it ‘first blood,’ because we’ve got to try to get the ball first because of their tremendous athleticism.”

Yet the twist facing LSU is rebounding outside of their area. Jump shots tend to produce long ricochets and the type of 50-50 balls LSU will need to corral in space.

“We’ve got to be good and be solid in box outs,” Martin said. “We don’t want to give them any second chances or shots. We’ve got win on the boards.”