Rejuvenated LSU men trek to Alabama

Johnny Jones doesn’t place much stock in the notion of hexes.

No, pulling up to Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum, where LSU has lost eight in a row, doesn’t trigger some mystical force of nature. The only common theme for the Tigers is the Crimson Tide nagging, tugging and pestering foes the entire length of the hardwood inside the 46-year-old building.

But cursed? No, the LSU coach doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s another tough road game,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s anything different than some of the tough venues we play at in this conference.”

Besides, LSU (12-5, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) has plenty of control in how this season’s trip ends.

The Tigers trekked away from Baton Rouge to face Bama (8-9, 2-3) at 7 p.m. Saturday toting a two-game winning streak — the back half of it a vital victory over Missouri on Tuesday — and a sense they’ve resolved an identity crisis that produced a two-hour vent session a couple of weeks ago.

“We’re in a better place now,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “We’ve got some chemistry.”

How it has translated to the floor was more about effort than schematics — toughness on the boards and battling for 50-50 balls — and communicating on defense.

“If you’re not defending your man well, it’s my job just to step and tell you, point blank,” O’Bryant said. “You’ve got to lock down. You’ve got to grab that rebound. You can’t be afraid to get on a person.”

Case in point: when LSU blew a late four-point lead at Ole Miss in an 88-74 overtime loss. At points, there were poor switches on screens, a lack of chatter on defensive rotations and issues matching up — such as the Rebels’ Jarvis Summers driving to the elbow and rising for a jumper to force an extra period with 32 seconds left.

Perhaps the best indicator was 3-point defense. In its two SEC losses, LSU let Tennessee and Ole Miss, both of which boast length in the backcourt, shoot a combined 18-of-37 from long range. Opponents shot 39.7 percent in all four SEC games before Tuesday’s win against Missouri.

“We felt like we wasn’t talking enough,” freshman guard Tim Quarterman said. “In the Tennessee game, we didn’t communicate at all.”

Vanderbilt (which fell 81-58 on Saturday) and Missouri (77-71) only shot 37.9 percent from the floor, hitting just 13 of 38 shots from behind the 3-point line. After getting called out by Jones for a lack of effort, LSU averaged a gaudy plus-14.5 rebound margin, doing its job against two of the SEC’s thinner front courts.

“Playing defense is not always about being one-on-one with someone,” Jones said. “A lot of time, it is how you rotate and helping defensively. The biggest deal is your trust factor with your teammates to be able to carry out your duties.”

Helping matters has been the emergence of Quarterman as a defensive stopper. After Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson hit a floater in the lane with 17:49 to play, the 6-foot-6 freshman was inserted to use his length to clamp down on Missouri’s leading scorer.

“Just lock him up,” Quarterman said of the advice Anthony Hickey passed along after heading to the bench.

Sure enough, Clarkson missed his final six shots, including two swatted away by Quarterman at the rim. His lone production with the freshman hounding him? Three free throws.

“He made shots but, at the end of the day, we got the stops we needed,” Quarterman said.

Perhaps the better barometer was LSU’s late-game execution on the defensive end and at the foul line — areas that tripped up the Tigers at Ole Miss.

As LSU nursed a 70-65 lead in the final minute, Missouri swished just three free throws and was 1 of 4 from the floor — a Jabari Brown 3-pointer to make it 74-71 with 18 seconds left — and never got a look inside the paint.

“We’ve been talking a lot better lately, and our chemistry is really growing,” Quarterman said. “It’s a good time because it’s SEC play. We’re defending people, getting stops.”

Hickey, a 50 percent free throw shooter coming in, was 4-of-4 at the charity stripe to keep it a two-possession lead.

“I think we’ve been able to get stops and rebound,” Jones said. “We’ve found a sense of toughness and executed well at the free throw line.”

Jones knows those facets travel well. So, yes, LSU’s track record in Tuscaloosa isn’t sterling. But Jones and his crew know history doesn’t doom them to repeat it, either.

“The growth of the team has been gradual,” Jones said. “They’ve been tested.”

Note: LSU forward Jordan Mickey is one of nine players on the midseason watch list for the Wayman Tisdale Award, presented by the United States Basketball Writers Association to the nation’s best freshman. The award has been presented since the 1988-89 season, when LSU guard Chris Jackson (now known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) was the inaugural winner.