Defense won’t rest as Florida hosts LSU

Jordan Mickey’s schedule only lets the freshman watch small chunks of LSU’s future foes.

If he has enough energy after a game, he might settle in for a little late-night viewing session in his dorm room. Even in a dim film room at the Tigers’ practice facility, exposure comes in small doses — a series of clips culled by coaches to outline the scouting report.

So, ahead of LSU (17-10, 8-7 Southeastern) visiting No. 1 Florida (26-2, 15-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the O’Connell Center, the freshman hasn’t been privy to a full sample of the Gators. But he has seen enough to leave a clear impression.

“They hustle. They’re physical,” he said. “You can see it’s going to be a test out there for us.”

In the past 30 games, the Gators have not lost on their home court, a streak sustained this season in part by turning the O’Dome into a torture chamber defensively.

So if LSU wants to halt its six-game road losing skid and come through in their last regular-season opportunity to notch a quality win, the Tigers will have to be an outlier.

At home, Florida has held 11 opponents below 61 points, and eight of those teams didn’t even reach 21 in the first half. The numbers in the O’Dome are sobering: Florida opponents are averaging 51.7 points on 38.5 percent shooting.

And the list of victims goes beyond North Florida, Arkansas-Little Rock and Savannah State.

No. 6 Kansas, which is headed to a 10th consecutive Big 12 title, went without a field goal for roughly 9 minutes while the Gators tore off a 21-0 run during a 67-61 victory in December.

Last month, Tennessee shot just 26.7 percent, including 1-for-19 from the 3-point line — the second-stingiest effort in the nation this season. As for leading scorer Jordan McRae, the Vols guard clanked 14 of 15 shots.

In SEC action, Florida cedes just 54 points at home and held Georgia (50), Tennessee (41) and Texas A&M (36) to season-low totals.

“They play defense for the whole shot clock. They play well on-ball, and they’re long on the perimeter,” LSU guard Anthony Hickey said. “We’ve just go to do our part and set good screens and not turn the ball over.”

There’s some irony in here, too. Last season, Florida was No. 4 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics, but the Gators are No. 10 this season.

On Monday, Florida coach Billy Donovan said his players seem to have embraced the notion that one man is a cog. If all work in unison, the system hums flawlessly.

“There’s things we do defensively, and they have their jobs and their responsibilities, which are predicated on helping each other,” he said. “I don’t think your defense is ever any good unless everyone is pulling for each other and covering each other.”

But there are egos among forwards Patric Young and Will Yeguete and guards Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather — a quartet looking to venture farther after their past three NCAA tournament runs ended one win shy of the Final Four.

“When you have the basketball, they have a lot of eyes on you,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “They’re in the right position and trying to take away driving lines, helping, switching, communicating and, at the end of the day, rebounding the basketball.”

So, maybe the Tigers will try to get into the open floor. Again, expect the Gators to buckle down: They’re giving up just 18.3 percent of their shots in transition. What about stretching the floor behind the 3-point line? A noble idea, but Florida only gives up 32.3 percent shooting from long range.

Instead, LSU may lean heavily on sparking its interior game — which posts roughly 33.2 points per game in the lane — against an opponent that barely gives up 20.1 points in the paint. The Gators allow only 28.9 percent of their shots at the rim, tops in the SEC.

That LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant III has been hobbled and struggled in his times tangling with Young isn’t a positive trend. In two meetings, both times hobbled by a bum ankle, the Tigers’ main offensive weapon averaged just 5.0 points and 6.5 rebounds, shooting 33.3 percent.

“He’s one of the bigger, stronger, more physical guys in the country,” Jones said of Young.

It may fall to Mickey, who makes a living off the attention given to O’Bryant, to make plays on dive cuts and stick backs.

Granted, Florida only allows eight of those points per game and has a plus-5.9 rebound margin in SEC play.

“Rebounds are always going to be a big thing,” Mickey said. “Pretty much, whoever gets the most rebounds wins the game. We just have to get down there and battle for rebounds and be physical.”

On Thursday, Mickey hadn’t seen a second of footage. Nor had he had time to pick O’Bryant’s brain about Young and Yeguete.

Yet he knows nothing can fully prepare him for the in-person experience Saturday.

“We just have to be ready,” he said, “to rise up and match their intensity.”