On guard against a letdown

Now comes the hard part for LSU.

Sure, mustering focus and an edge ahead of facing a ranked foe in Kentucky is easy.

Getting your antennae up against Arkansas, another Southeastern Conference team desperate to keep fading NCAA tournament aspirations alive, doesn’t prove arduous, either.

No doubt, last week was sterling for the Tigers (14-6, 5-3), who upgraded their postseason credentials and climbed a rung in the standings.

Their just rewards?

A trip to Georgia (10-10, 4-4), which tips at 6 p.m. Thursday, to face the backsliding Bulldogs — losers of three in a row — in a potentially placid Stegeman Coliseum.

Not every tilt is made for TV, though.

And for LSU, there’s the reality that their March résumé and SEC aspirations leave little room for a slip-up.

Exorcising some demons from close road losses at Ole Miss and Alabama would be nice, too.

“We understand what it takes,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “It’s just a matter of getting over that hump and making plays down the stretch.”

By now, the Tigers know frittering away a four-point lead in the final 82 seconds of an overtime loss to the Rebels might hurt when seedings are set for the SEC tournament.

The loss to the Crimson Tide, who at one juncture led by 19 points in the second half, would have been found money if LSU had held on to its slim one-point lead in the final minute.

“We really need some road wins in the conference,” LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant III said. “We let a couple slip away. It’s not like we’ve been playing bad on the road.”

True, but not well enough defensively to cinch up close victories away from the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

On the road in SEC play, LSU allows opponents to shoot 44.4 percent from the floor, which is comparable — a percentage point lower, actually — to what they give up at home.

But they’re worse at defending the 3-point line, giving up at least seven per game. They also send foes to the line 29 times per game, which is 10 more attempts than they allow at home.

Perhaps the best remedy, though, is a move to a zone defense over the past two games.

The switch allows LSU to use its length in O’Bryant, Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin and Shavon Coleman on the interior. On the perimeter, it shortens the distance for close-outs on jump shooters. And by stripping out duties such as hedging or switching on screens, there are fewer creases for guards to attack.

“The zone allowed us to be bigger and stronger,” Jones said. “We were able to rebound better as well. (We were) looking for some certain combinations that I think go well on the floor. I think the zone was able to provide that, cover a lot of area and answer a lot of questions for us.”

Clamping down defensively against Georgia requires team defense, too. Since losing do-everything guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope early to the NBA, the Bulldogs use a by-committee offensive approach.

Sophomore guard Charles Mann averages 13.5 points per game, while Kenny Gaines chips in 11.8 each night. Outside of that, the Bulldogs, which are 11th in scoring and field-goal percentage, piecemeal together the rest of their production.

“A lot of guys usually stay in the background,” Jones said. “When you look out there, you have to understand that all of those guys are on Division I scholarships, excellent basketball players and parts of solid recruiting classes.”

Helping matters, too, is having the Tigers vaunted freshman trio finally playing well at the same time.

Martin has started the past two games, averaging 12 points and four rebounds. Mickey was the SEC freshman of the week after putting up 18.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. Meanwhile, Tim Quarterman has settled in nicely as a defender off the bench.

“Our chemistry is getting better each and every day,” Quarterman said. “We’re getting the stops we need. We’re getting the baskets we need.”

And Martin, who is finally recovered from a high-ankle sprain, appears to be playing with the type of confidence in the post he lacked during an aborted transition to small forward.

“It’s definitely helped get my confidence level back up over the past couple of games,” Martin said. “Now I just need to keep it going on the road.”

The mission is nothing fancy. The opponent far from glitzy. And the environment bland.

For LSU, though, challenges can lurk in the least expected places.