Even though the LSU men’s basketball team ranks among the Southeastern Conference’s scoring leaders at 74.0 points per game, the Tigers know where their up-tempo offense really starts: about 70 feet from their basket.
A strong inside presence with Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, coupled with sticky perimeter defense from Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby and Jalyn Patterson, have LSU fighting for a top-four seed in the SEC tournament — and an NCAA tournament berth as well.
“Definitely, that’s our first thing … defense,” said Patterson, who earned a starting spot earlier this month with his defensive prowess. “That’s what Coach (Johnny Jones) always tells us when we go out: ‘Defend and let the offense go through the defense.’ We just try to go out and get stops.”
Indeed, defense has been key for LSU and will have to continue to be down the stretch. It’ll be vital when LSU (20-8, 9-6) hosts Ole Miss (19-9, 10-5) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in a crucial game for both clubs.
A victory would move the Tigers into a fourth-place tie in the standings with the Rebels, but Jones’ team would hold the tiebreaker because of a 75-71 win Jan. 14 in Oxford.
That matchup signaled the start of a defensive surge for LSU that has helped the Tigers win eight games, holding their opponent to less than 40.0 percent shooting in seven of them.
In those seven victories, their opponents have combined to shoot just 35.6 percent from the field — including 26.0 percent from 3-point range.
Throw in the fact that LSU ranks second in the conference in blocked shots and third in steals, and it’s easy to see why the Tigers are fourth in field-goal defense at 39.7 percent.
“Defensively, we’ve been getting off to the start we needed,” Jones said. “Tim has probably been our best perimeter defender the last two years, and having the ability to start him off on some key guys helps, along with Jalyn being healthy.
“Keith is physical enough to defend bigger, stronger perimeter players out there, so that helps. Jarell can defend some of the perimeter guys and, because of the length we have, that helps. It’s helped us defend the 3-point line a little better possibly than in the past.”
That showed up on the trip to Oxford when LSU held Ole Miss’ Jarvis Summers, Stefan Moody and LaDarius White to a 14-of-45 shooting night — and just 4-of-17 from beyond the arc.
Hornsby said not letting them get comfortable, especially on 3s, was a key that evening and will be again Saturday.
“We just have to try and do the same thing,” said Hornsby, who outshined his counterparts that night with 23 points and five 3-pointers. “They’re going to shoot them; we have to contest them as best we can and just try to drive them off the 3-point line.”
Moody, who connects on 37.3 percent of his 3-pointers, is tied for third with Martin and Mickey in the SEC in scoring at 16.5 points per game. Summers is the facilitator with 4.7 assists per game and averages 12.7 points, while White contributes 10.7 points per contest.
In the first meeting, Moody had 14 points and Summers 13, but Ole Miss shot just 34.6 percent for the night.
“Collectively, we did a good job playing help defense,” Martin said of the job they did on Moody and Summers especially. “We were running them off the 3-point line and forcing them to make plays at the rim.”
That played right into LSU’s hands as Martin had 14 rebounds to go with 18 points, while Mickey had 11 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks.
That defensive theme has kind of carried through for the most part, all the way through Tuesday night’s 84-61 rout of Auburn. Quarterman and Hornsby were instrumental in holding guards KT Harrell and Antoine Mason to 20 points after they torched the Tigers for 52 in an upset 19 days earlier.
“The guards have picked it up and helped a lot,” Mickey said. “They’re playing great on-ball defense and keeping guys out of the lane. It??s also keeping me and Jarell out of foul trouble.”
As a result, they hope to carry over what they did against Harrell and Mason — and for most of the past six weeks — to Saturday’s game.
“Any time you hold two good scorers down like that, it’s a good job,” Patterson said. “We just have to go into this game the same way we did at Auburn and try to lock up on defense.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.