LSU tries to clear logjam in 4th

Avenging earlier loss to Aggies also occupies Tigers’ minds

Vengeance doesn’t seem to occupy much room in the minds of the men donning LSU uniforms.

Sure, the impulse exists.

Really, how could it not creep in?

Two weeks ago, Texas A&M, one of the Southeastern Conference’s weaker offensive teams, lashed the Tigers in an 83-73 victory that qualified as one of the Aggies’ best outings of the season.

And one that saddled LSU (16-10, 7-7) with an ugly blemish on an already-stained NCAA tournament portfolio.

“It’s definitely about getting revenge,” LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant III said Monday. “But in the bigger picture, we’ve just got to start getting wins at some point, so why not start here?”

Necessity, it seems, trumps the craven desire to dole out payback Wednesday when the Aggies (16-11, 7-7) pull up to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

After Saturday’s overtime loss at Kentucky and entering Tuesday’s game, the Tigers are packed in with six peers — including the Aggies — in a seven-squad pileup for fourth place in the conference.

Knocking off the Aggies, it turns out, is an urgent matter of practicality. Revenge? That’s far too petty.

“We can finish third or fourth, and then make a run in the conference tournament,” guard Anthony Hickey said. “It’s all about taking it a game at a time.”

A victory splits the season series and helps improve LSU’s record in a tiebreaker format that sorts teams based on how they fared against other teams even in the standings.

Right now, LSU would be the No. 9 seed in the SEC tournament but is still — at least in theory — in the mix for the No. 4 seed and the double-bye in Atlanta that comes with it.

Just ask Ole Miss, which grabbed the No. 3 seed on the final day of the regular season last year, about the benefits. The Rebels, clinging barely to their spot on the bubble, reeled off three wins in three days to get an automatic bid into the 68-team field.

Figuring out the exact circumstances to make that happen is cumbersome, considering the seven teams involved will play a combined 16 games against one another over the next two weeks.

One certainty exists: The more you win, the better your prospects.

“That’s what you play for,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “Our approach is that our next game is really important to us, but we’ve just got to go down that pecking order these next four and see where we fall.”

The potential sticking point: At what point does the notion of growth — the gradual and incremental improvements made daily — give way to the blunt reality of needing more wins?

Standing in the bowels of Rupp Arena on Saturday, several LSU players insisted there was still time to gel and evolve as a group — even if they had just watched a vital quality win wither after Julius Randle’s game-winning stickback with 3.9 seconds left in overtime.

“I don’t think you can ever stop talking about growth,” Stringer said.

But ...

“Obviously, we know we need wins,” Stringer added. “That’s the most important thing, and it’s been the most important thing from the start of the season. We’ve had setbacks but learned from them, and all we can hope to do now is go back in the gym and hold our heads up.”

Over the past two months, LSU has missed out on road wins because of struggles defending — allowing 83.7 points per game and 47.8 percent shooting — and ceding big runs with O’Bryant staring helplessly from the bench in foul trouble.

Yet in three of those losses, the Tigers were leading inside the final two minutes.

In spite of critical system failures, Jones and Co. could be sitting at 10-4 right now if not for poor late-game execution.

At Ole Miss, it was a Jarvis Summers jumper from the elbow to tie the score at 69 in the final minute — part of a 15-0 run spanning regulation and overtime.

Losing Bama forward Shannon Hale on a switch during a pick-and-pop let the freshman bury a go-ahead 3-pointer with 46 seconds left in an 82-80 defeat.

Finally, there was Saturday.

“We went down and tried to play a great game at Kentucky,” O’Bryant said. “We thought we should have got the win. And at the same time, we’ve just got to continue to give that effort and separate ourselves over the next four games.”

Jones hints at these moments simply as “a missed shot, a ball bouncing the wrong way,” but they are the sum total of small details left unattended that have cost LSU dearly.

Now he can call on them as examples and blend them with the circumstances facing LSU moving forward.

“It’s about finding and printing the details that you want to put into it,” Jones said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re as focused as we can possibly be going into those games, try to limit as many mistakes as we possibly can and create other opportunities because of our opponent’s mistakes.”

How does that apply to the Aggies? Simply, it means closing out better and with hands up. A better job rotating and contesting 3-pointers in the zone might make it difficult for the Aggies to put together another stellar night behind the arc.

“They shot the ball pretty well at A&M,” Hickey said. “They were getting wide-open 3s. That’s something we’ve had to clean up.”

Zeroing in on those issues is what Jones wants occupying his players’ minds. The Tigers don’t have much time to think about anything else.

“You’re on your last will right now,” O’Bryant said. “Just give it every you’ve got. That’s basically all you can ask for.”