Survive one game, move on to the next.
Once March arrives, the end goal is basic. Pulling it off? That can be a little bumpier.
On Monday night inside Moody Coliseum, LSU will try to shove, grapple, yank and push its way past SMU and into the NIT quarterfinals.
All season, the Tigers (20-13) centered part of their identity around the notion they were bigger, longer and brawnier in the paint. Yet the Mustangs (24-9), a lifeless program revived in just two years, can dole out a few whacks and wallops of their own.
“They’ve got great size,” forward Johnny O’Bryant III said, smiling after the question was asked. “We’ve got great size.”
And enough bulk to clog up Tigers offense routed through the low block and high post.
Under coaching legend Larry Brown, defensive lapses don’t last long, or the 73-year-old will simply pluck another member from his bench to trot out.
SMU ranks 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 0.93 points per possession, according to KenPom.com. The Mustangs led the American Athletic Conference by allowing 37.7 percent shooting, including a stingy 41.6 percent shooting — No. 6 nationally — inside the 3-point arc.
“They’ve been difficult to score on all year,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “That’s something they hang their hat on, the defensive end of the floor.”
So LSU, which averages 31.6 points in the paint per game, figures to suffer a few welts and scrapes near the rim.
“We went over the scouting report (Thursday), and that’s one of the things I told everyone,” O’Bryant said. “It’s probably some of the best bigs we’re going to see.”
The duo of Markus Kennedy and Shawn Williams start for SMU, but neither play more than 25 minutes. Kennedy, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound sophomore, has the size to body up O’Bryant, but can spelled by Cannen Cunnigham (6-11) and Yannick Moreira (6-11) when they play 15 minutes.
“They can run about 10, 11 guys deep,” Jones said. “That gives you an opportunity to do a lot of things. They’ve really put themselves in position to play a lot of guys and wear you down.”
Aside from point guard Nic Moore, who is 5-9, no one on the Mustangs roster stands shorter than 6-4.
LSU, though, has seen its rotation whittled down to seven stalwarts after sophomore guard Malik Morgan tore the patellar tendon in his right knee against Auburn last month.
Junior John Odo is 6-9, but he averages 5.3 minutes per game, is foul prone and the range of his offensive skill set is corralling rebounds for putbacks. Freshman Darcy Malone may stand 7-feet but is a relative featherweight at 229 pounds, and the Australian is more accustomed as a face-up threat than jostling inside.
And Jones is coy in discussing how he can shuffle his rotation to match what SMU brings to the table.
“Our game and the pace of it will dictate what we have to do,” Jones said. “We’ve obviously had to look elsewhere for someone to get those minutes.”
But expect the clash of long-limbed combatants to be most vital on the back boads.
SMU is second in the AAC by ceding only 31.7 rebounds per game, and leads the conference with a plus-4.4 margin on the glass.
Perhaps its a poor omen for LSU, which has struggled in its past two games against a foe in Kentucky that could match the Tigers’ size. The Wildcats outrebounded the Tigers by a combined plus-19 margin and scored 45 second-chance points in their past two meetings.
After the second loss, which came in the SEC quarterfinals, the Tigers chalked up UK’s edge to their will trumping the Tigers.
O’Bryant said last week the Wildcats’ brute force on the backboards demoralized LSU.
But the implication was broader, too. Like any bully, LSU didn’t handle what it usually dispenses. And that simply can’t be tolerated against SMU.
“It definitely is a game about toughness,” O’Bryant said, “about playing big and strong.”