Loss to Aggies leaves questions for Tigers

Forget chatter about LSU’s prospects on the NCAA tournament bubble.

A day after a deflating 83-73 loss at Texas A&M, the Tigers now face more fundamental and pressing questions than whether they can sufficiently pass muster with bracket gurus or the selection committee.

Can LSU rectify a slew of shoddy defensive breakdowns?

Upon leaving Baton Rouge, will coach Johnny Jones’ group to conjure the mettle required to win in an opposing building?

And is the pressing weight of outside expectations creating anxiety on one of the Southeastern Conference’s most talent-laden rosters?

Ultimately, the answers LSU (15-8, 6-5) offers up may not matter.

Their worth will be judged Saturday when the Tigers visit Arkansas (15-8, 4-6) trying to snap a four-game road losing streak and slowly creep back up the SEC pecking order.

“You’re either going to make it happen or not,” O’Bryant said. “That’s the question for us. We’re either going to step up or not.”

Evidence exists to prove the Tigers are capable.

Outside of back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Rhode Island, LSU is 6-1 the next time on the floor. In those victories, they limit opponents to 71.6 points per game and 35.2 percent shooting.

Not bad, right? Well, all of those games except one — an overtime victory against Butler — came at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The test is elegantly simple: Does LSU muster a similar recovery in a hostile environment?

Unfortunately, Bud Walton Arena isn’t a prime locale. The Razorbacks are 45-6 inside its confines since coach Mike Anderson took over.

But with only seven games remaining on the slate, the Tigers don’t have many chances left to shirk what’s become a frustrating habit. It’s a trait stirring grumbling among some fans about the program underwhelming this season.

“To be a good road team and get wins, you’ve got to be a good basketball team, and that’s what we’re striving for,” Jones said. “We haven’t gotten to the area where away from home (we) play at that level.”

The antidote?

“We’ve just got to play with that edge that we usually play with,” guard Anthony Hickey said.

Perhaps the better question is whether urgency has become an irksome anxiety taking root in LSU’s psyche.

With three losses to sub-100 teams in as many weeks, the Tigers’ tournament credentials are ripped and tattered, prompting the question of whether LSU can clear its head.

“Nobody’s feeling sorry us, and we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said. “We’ve just got to bounce back.”

On Wednesday night, Jones implicitly critiqued the mojo LSU brings to the floor defensively when on the road doesn’t match the opponent.

Meanwhile, the second-year coach has searched for solutions. He’s tweaked his starting lineup three times in SEC play. Three weeks ago, he rolled out a zone look to capitalize on LSU’s size and length.

All to little avail away from the PMAC.

The Aggies, who entered shooting just 30.2 percent behind the arc, tied a season-high with 10 3-pointers. Often, LSU might have been in position but was slow to close out in the zone.

It’s been a common theme in SEC road defeats, too.

The Tigers, who have the SEC’s worst 3-point defense, let Ole Miss, Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M shoot a galling 47.1 percent from distance and bury eight of them a game.

“We’re not rotating to the point where we’re comfortable night in and night out against certain schemes people are running offensively,” Jones said.

And at Georgia, the Bulldogs exposed the Tigers’ scattershot focus at defending guards off the dribble by cutting off driving lanes or recovering when screened in isolation sets.

“Early in the year, we was great on-ball defenders,” O’Bryant said. “All of sudden, guys have been getting to the rack on us. Teams that don’t average a lot of points have been scoring 80 or 90 points on us.”

Depending on your perspective, too, Jones said there’s few remedies or tweaks left to make.

“We are who we are,” Jones said. “There’s not really a whole lot we can change outside of attitude, mentality and a sense of urgency.”

Whether LSU can provide the correct response, though, isn’t entirely clear.

“We know what we need to do,” Hickey said. “That’s take care of business on the road.”