Flustering Missouri point guard Phil Pressey is a rare feat.
Until three weeks ago.
Hounded by Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin, the maestro of the Tigers offense was harassed into a season-high 10 turnovers and a paltry two points during an 83-52 road rout at the O’Connell Center.
On Wednesday, Pressey, the nation’s assist leader at 7.2 per game, figures to receive an enhanced degree of pestering in doling out passes when No. 17 Missouri (15-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) visits the SEC’s last-place team, LSU (10-7, 1-5) and guard Anthony Hickey, the NCAA’s best thief at nearly four steals a night.
Naturally, the prospect of badgering Pressey carries its allure — albeit quietly expressed by the soft-spoken Hickey.
“Any point guard coming in here excites me, especially knowing what he’s done,” Hickey said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for me and my team.”
Granted, the Tigers’ preferred means of forcing turnovers figures to be tweaked after forcing 20-plus in each of their past four games, including 21 in a 75-70 loss at Kentucky on Saturday.
LSU has selectively pressed using the length of bigger guards in Malik Morgan and Charles Carmouche to trap and relying on Hickey’s vision and quick hands as a former defensive back in wreaking havoc on backcourts.
But Monday, LSU coach Johnny Jones said speeding up Pressey might not prove prudent.
“The faster he goes, the better he gets,” Jones said.
There’s a degree of truth to Jones’ assessment. Once the pace clears 70 possessions per game, Pressey’s assists average rises in correlation to 10.1 per game, including 19 during 97-94 overtime loss Dec. 28 at UCLA.
“He has a real gift in terms of being able to create opportunities for others,” Jones said. “He’s one of those really good point guards (who) can see plays ahead of time. It may be a play or two ago, but he understands what was available to him during that time. He’ll come back to it.”
Hickey proves the best antidote for Pressey’s creative skills, considering the sophomore had more than four steals in eight games this season, including eight during a 58-54 victory a week ago against Texas A&M.
“He’ll be our first option,” Jones said. “It’s not like they’re going to let us draft somebody this late in the season. That’s basically it.”
Only the Gators stymied Pressey, limiting him to six assists against his 10 turnovers, starting with Wilbekin blanketing Pressey, whose penetration into the lane was met by solid defensive rotations and the Tigers settling for a slew of 3-pointers.
“Phil is so good with the ball, he shouldn’t let people speed him up,” Haith said. “He should control his own tempo and go as fast as he wants to go.”
The absence of forward Laurence Bowers, who has missed five games with medical collateral ligament sprain in his right knee, has changed the complexion of the Tigers offense and put greater onus on Pressey.
Fellow forward Alex Oriahki, a senior transfer from Connecticut, added a rugged element to Missouri’s front court, but he considers himself a rebounder and interior defender first.
During the first three games of Bowers’ absence, he averaged only seven points per game, putting added pressure on the Missouri backcourt to produce.
At times, the Tigers offense could stagnate with shooters Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown and Keion Bell watching from the wing as Pressey collapsed defenses off the dribble before pitching out to the perimeter for jumpers.
Since Bowers’ injury, Missouri is attempting three more 3-pointers per game, while those shots now make up 41.8 percent of the Tigers’ shots — a 12 percentage point increase.
“We’ve got to do a better job so it’s not just everybody standing and watching Phil play,” Haith said.
“We don’t want that. If Phil’s out of the game, we don’t want to watch Keion play alone either.”
But Wilbekin’s success proves to Hickey a clear fact: Pressey is mortal.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Hickey said. “He’ll probably make a couple more mistakes. We’re going to play him like we play everybody else, we’re just going to come with more intensity.”
Even if Hickey isn’t able to generate turnovers, simply providing steady on-ball pressure against Pressey will be sufficient.
“He’s a tough kid,” Haith said. “Watching film, he’s all over the place. He’s a high energy guy. It should be a fun match-up.”
If LSU doesn’t have to consistently over rotate in its defensive shell to help on Pressey, it prevents the guard from firing a quick pass out and put LSU behind in closing out on shooters or out of position for penetration off the wing.
“What you have to do is to just try to contain him and keep him in front, Jones said. “When he gets in the gap and somebody comes to help he has teammates out there that are very capable of knocking down threes.
And bland as it might sound, Hickey may moderate the risks he’s willing to incur.
“Staying solid, not trying to reach as much,”Hickey said of his approach. “I’ve got to try and out think him, too. It’s just about being who I am, staying under control and playing solid defense.”