LSU counting on big men versus Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Jordan Mickey senses space closing when the entry pass arrives.

Darting from across the lane, another long body arrives to badger the LSU freshman. Or maybe it’s A quick guard pawing and swiping if the forward drops the ball low to his waist.

Trapped and surrounded, Mickey fights the same bout with galoots and goons that usually to pester junior Johnny O’Bryant III.

Only in the past three road games, the veteran O’Bryant has watched, sitting hunched over in a folding chair in foul trouble.

The pressure, literal and psychological, rests on Mickey to produce — and adapting can prove a challenge.

“It has been a little difficult,” Mickey said Thursday.

The Tigers (15-8, 6-5 Southeastern Conference), which face Arkansas (15-9, 4-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday, use O’Bryant as a body around which their offense orbits.

Except Mickey and fellow freshman Jarell Martin can struggle to fill the void when O’Bryant picks up his second whistle. And it’s led to a stilted offense in the first half of three-consecutive road losses.

“Sometimes when I go out I think we do a bad job just standing around,” said O’Bryant, who is averaging 15.6 points per game . “Guys are waiting to see where the offense is going to come from.”

Taking a passing glance reveals hints of LSU’s tilted offensive axis.

The Tigers have been outsocred by a combined 14 points in the first half of road losses to Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M with O’Bryant, and they’ve shot just 40 percent during those stretches.

At Alabama, the lack of punch meant an inability to respond to a 22-0 run that put LSU in a 22-9 hole against the Tide, which at one point led by 19 before the Tigers failed to rally.

Against Georgia, coach Johnny Jones’ squad went cold as the Bulldogs went on a 13-2 spurt to take a 36-24 lead with under four minutes remaining before half.

And on Thursday, O’Bryant went LSU up 18-12 with roughly 12 minutes until the break. The Tigers made due for seven minutes, but endured a 4:51 span without a basket as the Aggies took a 43-37 lead into the locker room.

“With the lead that we had,” Jones said, “we may have been able to extend it because of the presence (O’Bryant) had out there on the floor offensively and how he was playing.”

Yet Jones didn’t see any correlation to O’Bryant sitting and offensive struggles earlier this week.

“I didn’t think we fell apart,” Jones said. “We didn’t have a problem scoring, and that’s generally where you have a concern at.”

Except Mickey and Martin, both ballyhooed recruits, haven’t been able to provide the same balance offered by their elder.

During the past three games, the duo have played a combined 37 first-half minutes without O’Bryant — roughly an entire game — and combined for 22 points on 35.7 percent shooting while hitting 12 of 16 free throws.

“When Johnny gets in foul trouble and has to go out of the game, me and Jordan have to step up and bring something to the table for the team,” Martin said.

But O’Bryant’s absence alters the balance of the floor.

“It does little get a stagnant when he’s not on the court, because guys are used to throwing the ball into him and moving off of him,” Mickey said. “When he’s not in the game, I’d say guys are — not lost — but it’s a little awkward to find a spot and move around.”

Often, Mickey plays off O’Bryant, whether dive cutting from the elbow, shooting mid-range jumpers on pick-and-pops at the elbow or simply cleaning up misses.

But when his partner gets in foul trouble, Mickey must shift roles: Setting up on the block, catching and working against an opposing post player. Morphing into an aggressive player in the lane can be tough without a role model in O’Bryant,too.

“It helps him be that quiet shy kid,” O’Bryant said. “He sees me with the ball and all the things he can do off that. I do think when I get in foul trouble, he has to be that aggressor on the block. He has to be that post presence.”

Martin, though, doesn’t flinch.

Instead, he tries to revert to the attack mode he displayed as a McDonald’s All-American out of Madison Prep.

The result is field-goal attempts but a clear knack at getting to the foul line, where he’s hit 7 of 8 free throws. It also fits the profile offered by Jones, who’s often said Martin’s blend of size and quickness is a wrinkle for smaller wing defenders.

“Just going back to what I know,” Martin said. “Trying to drive pas the bigger guys and get to the foul line.”

Equally flummoxing can be knowing when it’s better to pass the ball out to keep the defense stressed. O’Bryant spent this summer brushing up on his post passing, and has three seasons of experience to draw upon.

Mickey, not so much.

“I wouldn’t say I’m not uncomfortable right now getting the double team in college,” he said. “It’s just something I have to work on and get better at.”

The only consolation, though, is a ringing endorsement from the Tigers’ figurehead.

“You can come down and give the ball to Jordan every time,” O’Bryant said. “He can make something happen.”