Ole Miss' Madinah Muhammad (20) has her shot blocked by LSU's Ayana Mitchell (5) during an NCAA college basketball game in Oxford, Miss., Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle)

Bruce Newman

WACO, Texas — Alexis Hyder rolled her eyes when she was asked the question.

Ayana Mitchell had a slight smirk creep across her face.

Coach Nikki Fargas couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle.

LSU's Lady Tigers are happy to answer — although it’s more of a well-rehearsed speech at this point than an improvised response. It’s just that they’ve heard the question so many times, in all of its variations.

"How can this team compete when it’s so short?"

"Is your lack of height on the inside a concern?"

"What do you plan to do about (insert opponent's name here) having such a height advantage?"

They can’t deny the problem exists, because it’s painfully obvious to anyone who takes even a cursory glance at the roster. With only four players standing above 6-foot, No. 8 seed LSU — which plays No. 9 seed California at 8 p.m. Saturday here in its first-round game — is one of the shortest teams in the NCAA women's basketball tournament. Of the 64 teams that qualified, only three have fewer players under 6-foot, with another four tied with the Lady Tigers.

There’s no hiding it, so LSU tries to embrace it.

“Teams try to pack it in and take away paint points against us,” Hyder said. “That’s when you play inside-out. That’s when you start knocking down shots and spreading out the floor, putting people in foul trouble with screens and things of that nature. It’s not a reaction; it’s just our game plan.”

Hyder isn’t wrong about points in the paint. LSU outscored teams in the paint 820-800 this season, although it was outscored 514-414 in Southeastern Conference play. LSU’s front court accounts for just 36 percent of its total offensive production this season.

It doesn’t get much better on the boards, either. The Lady Tigers’ 33.1 rebounds per game rank 325th in the nation. Auburn is the only NCAA tournament team with a lower average.

“It’s just going to be a matter of our team remaining a team,” said Mitchell, at 6-2 the Lady Tigers’ tallest major contributor. “All five of us guarding the paint and guarding the basketball. We’re not going to just leave it up to me or Alexis Hyder to defend the bigs. Our guards are going to sink in and help us out as much as they can. It’s just a matter of all five of us being on the same page.”

So if LSU can’t avoid the “small” designation, the inevitable follow-up question is always this: “What is the identity of this team?”

It would be one thing if LSU were a group of deep-shooting guards who jack up 3-pointers at a rate that would make the Golden State Warriors jealous ... but they aren’t that, either. The Lady Tigers aren’t only last in the nation in 3-point field goals made and attempted; they’re last by a country mile. LSU made 36 of 149 shots from distance this season. The next closest team, Davidson, is 73 of 305.

It’s not that the Lady Tigers don’t have the green light to shoot from behind the arc; they just have to earn it first. Fargas requires players to hit 400 3-pointers on their own time each week before they’re allowed to try one in a game. Fargas said several players hit the mark consistently, but only Chloe Jackson seems to take advantage. She leads the team at 19 of 59 from 3-point range.

Junior Jenna Deemer could have been the deep threat for LSU this season, but she sat out most of the year with an illness.

“If it's there, just try and knock it down,” Jackson said. “But I mean, if it's the pull-up or it's us taking it to the basket, then that's what we're going to try and do.”

So if LSU isn’t big and doesn’t shoot a lot of 3s, what is its identity?

Offensively, it means LSU is searching for other ways to score, primarily in transition and with its quick guards. LSU scored 182 points on fast breaks this season, accounting for almost 10 percent of its total points. On the inside, it requires LSU getting creative in its game plan, forcing teams to adjust to its lack of height instead of vice versa.

“People who are tall have to figure out how to guard smaller players,” Hyder said. “They’re not used to 5-11s taking on the dribble. They’re used to a 6-5 doing a baseline jumper. … They see us as unequipped and think that we’re only capable of doing one thing, and that’s because it’s what we show. You take advantage of the things you’re good at.”

On defense, LSU has to make up for its size deficit with a total team effort. Leaving Hyder or Mitchell to defend the opponent's bigs one-on-one is a recipe for disaster before they even get into inevitable foul trouble.

LSU wants to draw in guards to help on defense and plug passing lanes before the ball ever gets to the post. The Lady Tigers are No. 18 in the country, forcing an average of 20.5 turnovers — which they’ve turned into 666 points.

That strategy will be put to the test Saturday as LSU faces one of the most potent bigs in the nation. Cal center Kristine Anigwe, a 6-4 sophomore, is 12th in the nation in scoring at 21.2 points to go with 9.3 rebounds.

“I think that Nikki and her staff have done an incredible job of maximizing their strengths, which is the ability to turn you over,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “You don't win eight games in the SEC and 20 games overall or whatever they won with a little bit of a lack of size if you're not doing something to disrupt the other team — and they're terrific at turning you over, flustering the guards, not letting you get the ball to interior players, changing up defenses.”

5 for 3: The Lady Tigers' five most significant 3-pointers this season

5) Chloe Jackson broke a tie score when she threw up a try from just inside midcourt at the first-quarter buzzer during LSU’s game against N.C. State at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

4) In a player favorite moment, freshman walk-on forward Stephanie Self pulled up from deep in the final minute of a blowout against Alabama State to score her first (and only) points of the season. The Lady Tigers responded with a celebration worthy of the national championship game.

3) It may not have ended in LSU’s favor, but Raigyne Moncrief’s 3 with 15 seconds to play at Georgia kept the Lady Tigers’ hopes alive a little longer, sending them to overtime in Athens. LSU eventually lost 70-65.

2) It's not a single moment, but the Lady Tigers hit a season-high four shots from behind the arc at Arkansas. That ended up being the difference in a 53-52 win.

1) With 3 seconds left and LSU down two to N.C. State, the bench was yelling for Moncrief to drive for an easier shot to tie the score. Looking back, the Lady Tigers are sure glad she didn’t: Moncrief pulled up for a 3-pointer and gave the Lady Tigers a 59-58 win.

Follow Mike Gegenheimer on Twitter, @Mike_Gegs.