Thirty-five waning seconds remained in LSU’s loss Saturday at Georgia when Corban Collins splayed on the floor of Stegeman Coliseum and dealt another blow the Tigers’ paltry depth.
Two seconds earlier, Bulldogs forward Brandon Morris nudged the ball from Collins’ crossover dribble, sending it skittering into the lane. Unable to scoop it up, Collins dived. Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope charged. His left knee rammed into Collins’ eye socket, splitting the bridge of the freshman’s nose and above his eyebrow.
Ultimately, Collins was ferried from the floor in the cradled arms of Malik Morgan and Johnny O’Bryant. And as the Tigers jetted back to Baton Rouge, Collins remained overnight at the team hotel for further monitoring by a team trainer.
Collins’ plight leaves the Tigers depleted and nicked-up with a bruising stretch looming against Texas A&M, Kentucky and Missouri coming on the heels of an 0-4 start to SEC play.
On Saturday, the Tigers were without the services of guard Charles Carmouche, who sat out after a lingering case of knee tendinitis flared up. Reserve forward Eddie Ludwig donned purple-and-gold warm-up garb the past three games for an undisclosed malady.
The Tigers’ roster has no slack. It’s taut.
Against the Aggies, LSU coach Johnny Jones’ rotation could be pared to seven deep. The figure is tired and often repeated, but he has wanted to cap his players at 28 minutes per game. Four games into the Southeastern Conference docket, each member in a starting back court of Carmouche, Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey averages at least 31.
Now, without Carmouche or Collins in line to suit up this week, the burden will only grow.
It means altering practice schedules and structure to preserve legs. Instead of pocketing timeouts for late-game scenarios, Jones may call for a whistle to ensure a break for weary bodies. And it leaves him with a conundrum about what to do with forward Shavon Coleman, a 6-foot-5 junior-college transfer who slid to the front court from guard but may have to platoon between the front and back courts.
“One thing we don’t want them to do is rest on the floor and taking plays off,” Jones said. “That’s very dangerous at this level. That’s something that we’re conscious of with the depletion, I guess, of some of the guys (who) are not available for us this week because of injuries.”
But it also forces a broader discussion about what the bar should be for LSU the remainder of Jones’ debut season.
The Tigers won’t be favored in their next three games. And if the worst does occur, their record could sit at 0-7 entering a road trip to rebuilding Mississippi State on Feb. 2 — or the next shot to get off the schneid. By then, though, the fissures and craters left from the second-worst SEC start in school history would exist.
And while the Tigers strike a resilient tone talking with assembled reporters, it’s hard to imagine what part of the register it will hit should their woes continue. Worse, there’s nothing Jones can do to speed up the process. He can’t control clotting, inflammation or healing. But the psychological bruising from seven consecutive losses would persist.
Morgan, a freshman guard, ideally can provide 30 minutes a game similar to the stat line he produced at Georgia: 11 points, four rebounds and three steals. Those totals mirror the production offered by Carmouche and would allow Jones to toggle between Hickey and Stringer at point guard.
Yet the drop-off defensively is clear — “The problem with Malik is he’s been a little bit foul prone,” Jones said — and whether he can offer LSU a slasher on the wing able to get into the lane and to the foul line is a question.
“We’ve got to do a better job of moving his feet and playing with his chest instead of his hands,” Jones said. “He’s very capable of doing that. I think it’s just developing good habits and making sure that we do that. He’s very capable. He’s done it in some games, and others, we’ve gotten in trouble.”
If he does get into foul trouble, there’s no one behind him to bring in, aside from forward Shane Hammink.
Teetering on a critical precipice, Jones’ ingenuity and patience gets its staunchest test. With doubts already percolating about whether the Tigers can salvage a respectable finish, the next 10 days may be the best glimpse at Jones’ guiding hand at the helm of the program.