Seeking to keep building, LSU men welcome American in final pre-Christmas tuneup _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU guard Josh Gray (5) drives past Oral Roberts forward Javan White (25), Saturday, December 19, 2015, at LSU's PMAC in Baton Rouge, La.

After taking some baby steps to snap out of a mini-slump, the LSU men’s basketball team has only two more opportunities to take bigger strides before things get serious.

With the start of Southeastern Conference play 11 days away, the Tigers want to see more improvement before opening league play with games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida in an eight-day stretch.

The opportunity to keep building chemistry with new players in the lineup and at the same time work on problems that cropped up when the Tigers dropped four out of five games continues at 7 p.m. Tuesday when LSU (6-4) hosts American (2-8) in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Coach Johnny Jones is hoping to use Tuesday’s game, as well as a Dec. 29 home matchup with Wake Forest, to fine-tune his team after it gradually improved in victories over Gardner-Webb and Oral Roberts last week.

That means more of what the Tigers gave him in those 21- and 23-point wins: solid rebounding, vastly improved effort on defense and better shot selection on offense.

Jones didn’t waste time identifying those areas — and more — when asked what he would be looking for in the Tigers’ final two nonconference outings before SEC play commences.

“Consistency on both ends of the floor, and defensively making sure we’re locked in to the scouting report — making sure guys are in tune to what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “We have to take care of the ball on offense and make sure we have balanced scoring. We don’t want to force anything, and we have to make sure we’re running our offense with precision. That’s important.”

The return of guard Keith Hornsby, who missed the Tigers’ first seven games after sports hernia surgery Nov. 3, and forward Craig Victor, who became eligible last Wednesday, have helped solidify things with positive energy — particularly on defense.

“Everyone is back on the floor and healthy, so there are no excuses any more for us playing like we did,” forward Ben Simmons said. “We all have to hold each other accountable, and we’re doing that.”

Still, there’s more work to do.

While they played better in a 78-57 win against Gardner-Webb on Wednesday, Jones was pleased with Saturday’s 100-77 blowout of Oral Roberts in a game his team led by double digits for the final 35½ minutes. ORU shot 52.9 percent in the second half after connecting on only 41.7 percent of its first-half shots, which kept LSU from creating more separation.

“In the second half, we never made a run for the most part,” Jones said. “We were up at one point in the first half by 24, but we never made a good run like that in the second half because they scored consistently. They shot 53 percent, which means we didn’t do as good a job defensively in the second half as we did in the first half.”

Jones was pleased, however, with having 21 assists and winning the rebounding battle for the second consecutive game 40-30 after struggling on the glass most of the season. He said Monday it was one of his team’s more complete games.

“We had 21 assists on 36 made baskets; that’s a really good number for us,” he said. “We won the battle on the glass — that’s a big plus for us — so a lot of positive things happened.”

After carrying that over from the Gardner-Webb game, Jones wants to see it again Tuesday to make sure the Tigers are over the tough spell they went through.

“Unfortunately, we had those setbacks, but I thought our guys saw improvement on different nights,” he said. “I think we’ve shown that we can, and we’re capable of, defending. They see that, and that’s important for them. We want to make sure we improve each night and get better.”

Bridgewater out for a month

Jones said forward Brian Bridgewater was having a procedure on his knee, which will keep him out of action “about a month.”

Bridgewater, a 6-foot-5 junior, missed the past two games after giving the Tigers quality minutes in their first eight outings. He was averaging 3.5 points and 3.0 rebounds while playing 13.3 minutes.

Guard Jalyn Patterson, who has missed three games with a knee problem, won’t be available again Tuesday. Jones said Patterson will be re-evaluated Saturday when the team gets back together following a three-day Christmas break.

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.