Anthony Hickey knows the hints when they arise.
Standing a little too tall in a defensive crouch.
Slowly fighting through screens.
Bending over, fists clenching the hem of the shorts.
Sucking in deep gulps of air, chest heaving.
Passing on the pileup of a scrum for a loose ball.
The LSU guard will try to see more of them Saturday when Vanderbilt (9-6, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) trudges into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center to face LSU (10-5, 1-2) with just seven scholarship players.
Hickey understands the plight. A season ago, he logged at least 35 minutes in almost half the Tigers’ games with a threadbare roster.
“You’re taking a play off,” he said. “You notice it. You feel it. You think you need a sub, but you don’t know who can come in.”
Sympathy aside, LSU’s desire to operate at a wheeze-inducing pace would seem problematic for the Commodores.
The Tigers’ adjusted pace of 70.7 possessions per game, second in the SEC, trails only Arkansas. How fast is their average trip up the floor? Try 16.5 seconds. Meanwhile, 30.5 percent are over in fewer than 10 seconds, according to hoop-math.com
Boiled down, LSU tries to leave foes doubled-over. But the arrival of SEC action has slowed the Tigers — only slightly — to 18.2 seconds per offensive possession, according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics. Keep in mind, that’s after LSU rolled up 80 possessions in Wednesday’s overtime loss at Ole Miss.
Not that it surprises coach Johnny Jones.
“When you get into conference play, the thing about it is, there’s a book on you,” Jones said. “Everybody knows the makeup of teams and what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
So there’s the allure — at least in theory — of using Vandy’s arrival to get back to an identity that LSU has drifted from as foes threw variants of zone defense at the Tigers and became more adept at breaking their sporadic pressing.
Last week, the Commodores dismissed sophomore guard Eric McClellan, who was their leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, after he was suspended for academic violations and suspected in theft of clothes from a Nashville department store.
Coach Kevin Stallings already was short on numbers after forward Kevin Bright, who led Vandy in rebounding, signed a contract in July to play professionally in his native Germany. Earlier in the offseason, guard Kedren Johnson, who averaged 13.3 points, was suspended for the year for reported academic violations.
Throw in the transfer of A.J. Astroth along with normal attrition, and Stallings’ options for a rotation are slim, followed by none.
The fallout leaves guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker averaging roughly 30 minutes, and forward Rod Odom is putting in a whopping 34.5 each night. Since McCllelan’s exit, Fuller has played at least 38 minutes in the past three games, including all 40 in Thursday’s victory over Missouri.
All Stallings can feasibly do is make sure practices aren’t too taxing. In games, reprieves are harder to grant.
“You just have to be mindful of your guys, and we’ve never been a team that practices real, real long,” Stallings said. “They play hard in practice. They play hard in games. This is a time of year where people are cutting practice time back anyway.”
A year ago, LSU found itself in a similar position during Jones’ first season back in Baton Rouge: Hickey, Andre Stringer and Johnny O’Bryant III all averaged close to 30 minutes.
Stringer, though, didn’t see what his experience had to do with Vanderbilt’s current predicament.
“My only focus is LSU,” he said. “As far as being in tune about how many guys they have, I don’t really get into it much.”
Still, logic suggests the Tigers would try to exploit Vandy’s weakness in numbers.
With hand-checking and block-charge calls potentially producing higher foul counts, LSU’s guards might want to try to penetrate gaps and seams to put Vandy’s perimeter defenders in a bind.
Yet Hickey and Stringer aren’t wired to attack the rim, a spot on the floor where they’ve only attempted 13.1 percent of their shots, according to hoop-math.com. Their tendency to spot up for jumpers underscores why the pair have the lowest free-throw rates — 15.0 for Hickey and 29.9 for Stringer — of any member of the LSU roster.
“If a team plays us man, we’re going to want our man sets,” Stringer said. “We’re still going to want to go inside-out as much as we can. If they zone us, we’re going to run our zone sets. We’re going to push the ball when get chances.”
Jones wants to solve the pesky problem of LSU failing to get to the charity stripe — the Tigers are No. 314 nationally, per KenPom.com — but not at the expense of their normal offensive flow.
“We won’t go against what we normally do,” Jones said. “Those things can happen, but we want to make sure our post guys (still) have room to work inside. If we have an opportunity to attack, we will.”
So Hickey isn’t alone in eyeing when the opposition is on its last legs. When the time arrives, he knows his coach will see the same signs.
“Coach Jones knows when you’re tired,” he said. “You’ll show when you’re tired, too.”