LSU hosts Ole Miss to open SEC play

Cobbling together a profile of Ole Miss isn’t a task that would lead an observer to come away with bleary eyes from hours staring at a computer screen.

Fingers wouldn’t be nicked at the tips from rifling through reams of papers parsing statistics, shot charts and scouting reports, either.

Put bluntly, LSU (9-4) embarks on its gantlet of a Southeastern Conference slate at 7 p.m. Thursday against a Rebels squad with the league’s lowest RPI and ranked near the bottom of most statistical categories.

Whatever woes have been incurred by Ole Miss (7-6), which has an RPI at No. 268 according to RealTimeRPI.com, are of little consequence to the Tigers ahead of taking the floor at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“We’re not in a position to overlook anyone,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said.

Indeed, after losses to potential midmajor NCAA Tournament teams in Hampton and Florida Gulf Coast, the Tigers are taking a tempered tone entering SEC play.

But there are benefits to drawing the Rebels first on the docket, a team whose No. 314-ranked nonconference schedule included losses to Lamar, Louisiana Tech, Cleveland State, Northwestern and McNeese State.

On defense, LSU has allowed foes to score 65.5 points per game — the most in the SEC — and knock down 38.3 percent (No. 12) of their shots, including 31.8 percent behind the 3-point line.

Ole Miss, though, has shown itself to be far from an offensive juggernaut. They rank No. 12 in scoring (67.2 points per game) and assists (11.8), along with sitting at next-to-last in shooting with 36.2 percent from the floor.

Rebels junior point guard Valencia McFarland, who averages 11.4 points per game, serves as the lead cog in a rotation where eight players see at least 18 minutes on the floor.

And McFarland, a 5-feet-4 native of Edward, Miss., is the lone Rebel to rank inside the top 10 of any statistical category, ranking No. 6 at 4.7 assists per game and tied for third with three steals per game.

“She’s a hell of a guard,” LSU forward Theresa Plaisance said. “She’s done a great job the past two years, and poses a test with how quick and fast she can play.”

But after McFarland, options are scant for Ole Miss, which was tabbed to finish No. 12 in the SEC by the media in the preseason.

Yet any potential risk doesn’t loom solely in personnel, but in a switch in style and depth associated with moving into a conference where up to nine schools could land an NCAA Tournament berth.

“The SEC is always different from the nonconference, and you know it’s going to be a team that’s faster, stronger,” LSU guard Danielle Ballard said. “We expect guards to attack us more. No one takes a break.”

It’s an assessment echoed by Caldwell, who is trying to steer an LSU program that entered the season with a roster featuring just 10 scholarship players toward another postseason trip.

“It’s going to be a test,” Caldwell said. “Any team in the SEC is capable, and that’s the beauty of this conference.”

Granted, the Tigers nonconference schedule, which ended with a 2-2 record against teams in the RPI Top 100, sorted out critical matters.

In Plaisance, who leads the SEC with 18.6 points per game, LSU found a consistent scorer in the lane, one at ease facing up to the rim or hoisting 3-point shots in rhythm with the offense.

Case in point: Draining a 3-pointer at the top of the key after trailing a fast break and taking a feed from Anne Pederson to give LSU a 57-38 lead early in the second half against New Orleans.

“She felt good pulling (the trigger) on the 3, and we’ll always give her that,” Caldwell said. “I love the fact she can be solid inside.”

And Caldwell has a versatile threat in Ballard on the wing, whose 13.7 points per game rank seventh in the SEC. Ballard’s 49.7 percent shooting sits at No. 10.

The boon, though, is Ballard doesn’t require the ball in her hands to score, allowing Adrienne Webb to operate in a distribution role at point guard.

Against UNO, Ballard scored 10 of her 20 points on second-chance opportunities, along with knocking down open jump shots.

“She’s getting better every week and adding more and more to our team,” Caldwell said. “We were able to move her off the ball a little bit more.”

There’s also the emerging role for Bianca Lutley, a 5-11 junior from Pensacola, Fla., in a swing position on the floor.

Lutley, who is averaging 10.1 points per game, scored only 6 points against UNO on Monday, but Caldwell said her presence “allows us within the offense to run her (power forward) or any position.”

“She’s very good at isolation where she can play off the dribble drive,” Caldwell said. “If we could get her in more high-post looks, that would be good.”

LSU can say it at least has identified roles in an established starting five, along consistent but diverse sources of offense.

“It’s great to see the balanced attack we can have and not just key in on one player,” Caldwell said. “This year, we’ve got players with more comfort because they’re playing in their true positions.”

Plaisance noted: “I don’t think we’re at our peak yet. There’s always more you can do, but I feel good that we’re getting there.”