Defensive improvement is paramount as LSU hosts Auburn

Parked on the bench in foul trouble, Johnny O’Bryant III watched a nightmare reel on loop Thursday night.

At will, a Georgia guard would turn the corner, steam toward the rim and force an LSU big man to scramble from the help side.

Often, it ended with the Tigers irked and taking the ball out of the net. Or with a member of the Bulldogs strolling to the free-throw line.

No matter the result, O’Bryant easily deduced the culprit behind lax on-ball defense by LSU (14-7, 5-4 Southeastern Conference) as the Tigers allowed a season-worst 44 points in the lane and 46 attempts at the charity stripe in a 91-78 road loss that tarnished an already scuffed-up NCAA tournament résumé.

“It’s just effort,” O’Bryant said.

With just a one-day layoff to salve its wounds, LSU needs to extract whatever lessons were painfully imparted as it faces Auburn (11-9, 3-6), which arrives at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Pete Maravich Assembly with a backcourt duo adept at cracking defenses and spurring foul trouble.

Few would suspect the SEC’s most potent guard combos resides on the Plains. Yet senior Chris Denson (19.8 points per game) and junior K.T. Harrell (19.5) are second and third in scoring, taking a combined 61 percent of the Tigers’ shots when on the floor.

Often, those are point-blank tries. Roughly 42 percent of their attempts come at the rim, producing 13.7 points per game, according to hoop-math.com.

And if they’re not scoring, they’re headed to the charity stripe. Denson leads the SEC with 8.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, which ranks sixth nationally. Harrell earns 5.1 whistles per game according to kenpom.com.

“They’re going to come at us hard,” LSU senior guard Andre Stringer said. “They’re going to penetrate, try to get inside our zone or our man. We know that going in. The main thing about it is stopping it. I think we have guys that are very capable of stopping it and walling it up.”

Basically, LSU will see more of what it struggled to slow Thursday night at Stegeman Coliseum.

“Both of those guys are quick,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “And we have to do a great job containing and keeping the ball in front of us and making sure we make some plays at the rim if they get that deep.”

Fleshing out an explanation for what went awry in Athens depends on who you ask, too.

For O’Bryant, lagging effort in containing the ball — parlance for stopping a guard from driving to the rim — was the primary culprit.

“Whether it’s bigs showing on the screens or guards getting over the screens,” said O’Bryant, who fouled out in just 15 minutes after he scored nine points and gathered two rebounds. “Whatever it was, we just didn’t do a good job containing. They had big, strong, physical guards that could get to the rim and draw contact.”

Charles Mann scored four points in the paint on a pair of first-half layups, but the sophomore tended to wind up shooting with the clock stopped after drawing fouls. He was 9-of-13 at the free-throw line — trips earned by using his 6-foot-5 frame adeptly to draw contact.

Yet there wasn’t a common scenario or offensive sequence used by Georgia to spring the guard. His own savvy may have been the main culprit, Jones said.

“We just never figured out how to defend it,” Jones said. “They got into us. They got foul trouble for Johnny for standing there. When we challenged shots, we got in foul trouble. We didn’t do a great job containing him out front as well. He made moves and straight-line drives to the basket.”

The Bulldogs scored 32 of their points inside on layups or dunks and only missed two of those attempts. Factor in their 32 made free throws, and LSU allowed a team that came in averaging 69.5 points to score 64 alone from point-blank range or with the clock stopped.

Even LSU’s recent use of a 2-3 zone failed to halt Georgia early. Yet Shavon Coleman fingered silence — as in too little chatter — was the cause.

“We wasn’t talking enough on the court,” he said. “That’s why they were able to attack (us) with the pick-and-roll.”

And given that the calendar has turned to February, Stringer didn’t deny it’s troublesome that fundamentals such as that can slip.

“For it to be this late in the year playing against an experienced team in a hostile environment, we’ve done that before and talked and came out and won,” Stringer said. “It is very frustrating. But we don’t make any excuses. We go back into the lab and keep experimenting and prepare.”

Soon, though, the time to tinker may run out.

“We go over it every day,” O’Bryant said. “We practice it every day. There’s no reason those guys should be getting that many paint touches or in the lane.”