Jogging up court at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Saturday, LSU brought a brief glimpse of reality to the philosophy of first-year coach Johnny Jones after Shavon Coleman splashed in a deep 3-pointer from the right corner.
Trailing 50-37 with a little less than 10 minutes left, the Tigers pared into No. 11 Florida’s lead with a 9-0 blitz in less than a minute — a full-court-press fueled run that awoke a slumbering crowd of 9,964 — that put LSU in textbook position to slowly chip away as regulation wore down.
Reality proved jarring, though, as Florida’s 74-52 victory gave a proper assessment of LSU.
Twenty-nine seconds after LSU’s run, Gators senior center Erik Murphy stroked in a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. Two trips later, senior forward Patric Young knocked down a midrange jumper. And senior point guard Kenny Boynton then pilfered the ball from Jalen Courtney and raced down court for a two-handed dunk and a 57-39 lead with 7:21 to go — effectively stomping on any aspirations for a comeback.
Deflating in the moment, the three-minute stretch exists as a side-by-side comparison: what LSU (9-4, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) aspires to emulate in personnel, style and depth laid next to the reality of how far a path it must traverse.
“That group is one of your top-echelon teams that year in and year out, you want to mimic,” Jones said. “You want to be one of those programs with the depth the size, the style of play, all of those things. That’s what creates winning.”
A week into its SEC schedule, the validity of LSU’s sterling 9-2 record in nonconference no longer has a pristine patina after a road loss at Auburn and the rout by Florida. The seemingly bleak beginning in the SEC reveals a long-standing issue dating back to August for LSU: depth.
“We were exposed today in size, strength and quickness,” Jones said.
Jones’ inherited a mere 10 scholarship players in his first season, going so far as to reward three walk-ons with roster spots earlier in the fall to elevate the program’s numbers.
Implementing his up-tempo system, Jones envisions a rotation of up to nine bodies, each seeing no more than 28 minutes a game. Over the nonconference season, LSU adhered to that tenet, with only junior college transfer Shavon Coleman seeing 30.1 minutes per game. Yet in two SEC games, Hickey, Andre Stringer, Charles Carmouche and Shavon Coleman average at least 29 minutes a game.
The practical effect is Jones’ rotation has been pared down to seven bodies, and center Del Piero saw only three minutes per game last season, while Coleman is a new face. The dearth of fresh legs explains Jones curling his mouth into a wry smile when asked why LSU didn’t use the press, which generated four consecutive turnovers, more against Florida.
“We just don’t have enough bodies, enough guys when you expend that type of energy that we did getting back into the game against an experienced team,” Jones said. “They were able to settle down, and we got a little winded, and they were able to make plays and keep that cushion.”
The Gators provided the perfect foil for LSU: a team laden with six upper classmen and with enough depth to withstand a spate of injuries over the nonconference part of its season.
Forward Casey Prather missed time with a concussion. Guard Scottie Wilbekin missed three games with a broken index finger. Murphy played Saturday with a cracked rib he suffered a week ago against Yale. Guard Mike Rosario, who is Florida’s second-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game, sat out with a right high-ankle sprain. And Prather missed part of the second half after suffering an ankle sprain of his own.
Against LSU, coach Billy Donovan could really rely on only six players, all but one of which were a junior or senior and seasoned in gutting out tough games played in hostile environments. And it explains why the Tigers’ press only briefly got traction.
“Our guards played a lot of minutes, but we showed some resolve,” Donovan said. “I thought Murphy’s 3 on that run really got some momentum back for our team. Then we did a better job against the press, attacking it and getting some tip-ins and some follow-ups.”
LSU’s absence of depth showed up in the second half on the boards, where Florida’s frontcourt rotation of Young, Murphy and Yeguete battered a tired Del Piero and the Tigers to the tune of a plus-16 rebounding margin and an 11-3 advantage in second-chance points.
“We did a good job getting rebounds off of the bench,” said Yeguete, who pulled down 13 of Florida’s 53 rebounds. “We did a good job crashing the boards today, The big man (Del Piero),was tired, so we just kept crashing him over and over. We had a couple of easy rebounds, which definitely helped us in the end.”
The statistics illustrate what happens with a minor depletion in the LSU rotation. Forward Johnny O’Bryant played only 14 minutes, including a mere two in the second half, as he battles a high-ankle sprain — leaving Del Piero and undersized Coleman at 6-foot-5 to face the brunt of Florida’s frontcourt.
“It was tough,” Del Piero said. “They had such a deep bench that they had people coming in one after the next, and it really wore you down in the end.”
It’s clear to the Tigers that O’Bryant, who averages 11.4 points and 7.2 rebounds, isn’t the same player projected as a preseason All-SEC second-team pick.
“Johnny ain’t all the way (back) 100 (percent), but it gets better every day,” Hickey said. “He’ll continue to get his treatment. But as for us, we’ve got to move on and get better. He’s just going to keep cheering us on.”
However, Jones conceded O’Bryant has been pressed into uniform out of necessity.
“He doesn’t have the type of injury that’s going to be debilitating or hurt him to that point,” Jones said. “We can give him looks, and we’re not deep enough that if he’s able to go, we have to use him.”