The magic number for the LSU men’s basketball team since Johnny Jones became the Tigers’ head coach three years ago, and especially this season, is 70.
When LSU’s up-tempo offense has scored at least 70 points under Jones, the Tigers have compiled a 44-15 record, with a 17-1 mark this year.
The lone loss this season is still quite fresh in the minds of Jones and his team because it came just 19 days ago when an Auburn team that limped into town on a four-game Southeastern Conference losing streak danced out with a shocking 81-77 victory on LSU’s home floor.
Having that Feb. 5 loss still hanging over them might be what LSU (19-8, 8-6 SEC) needs going into the final four-game stretch of the regular season, which begins with the rematch at 6 p.m. Tuesday against Auburn (12-15, 4-10) in Auburn Arena.
When LSU returned to practice after Saturday’s 70-63 victory over Florida, there was little mystery about how the scouting report would begin, and, most probably, end: defense.
“We’re going to have to make sure we do a better job defensive job,” Jones quickly said of the task his team faces in trying to rebound against Auburn. “We gave up 81 points, and we scored 77. That should be plenty to win a basketball game.”
While that’s been the case for most of this season, LSU’s perimeter defense didn’t show up, and Auburn guards KT Harrell, the SEC’s leading scorer, and Antoine Mason took advantage of the situation.
They lit up LSU in combining for 52 of their team’s 81 points, connecting on 13 of 25 shots from the field and 18 of 22 free throws. They were extra sharp from beyond the 3-point line, burying eight of 13 attempts.
“We just have to make sure that we are mindful they have great shooters,” Jones said Monday. “Both of those guys had really good games. I think they knocked down nine (actually eight) 3-pointers. That was a huge difference in the game — the way they were able to shoot the ball here.”
Harrell, the SEC’s leading scorer at 17.9 points per game, also leads in 3-point field-goal percentage at 45.2 percent while hitting 47.1 percent overall. Mason nets 15.6 points a game and hits 41.7 percent from beyond the arc.
“We’ve got to make sure we pay more attention to detail in defending and guarding, and making sure we don’t allow guys to go off with big numbers that way,” Jones said, noting a breakdown in not following the scouting report was part of the problem. “We are a really good defensive team by the numbers.”
LSU ranks fourth in the SEC in field-goal defense in allowing 45.5 percent, and the Tigers are fifth in 3-point defense at 39.8 percent.
Auburn made 45.0 percent of its 3-pointers that night, going 9-of-20 as a team — with Harrell, who had 28 points, and Mason, who finished with 24, doing the most damage.
“We didn’t give ourselves a true chance because we didn’t follow the script throughout, like we needed to,” Jones said. “They may have resorted to scoring in other ways, but we would’ve much rather see that transpire instead of the 3-point looks they had. They became a confident team early.”
As a result, Auburn, which was a double-digit underdog, led for more that 35 minutes of the 40-minute contest.
“You just have to almost focus as much on defense as you ever have,” LSU guard Keith Hornsby said. “You just have to be in the moment and focus on every little detail when guarding two dangerous guys like that.
“But we can definitely improve on our technique on defense.”
LSU could be helped on the perimeter by the presence of guards Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson, who came off the bench most of the season but have started every game since that Auburn loss.
“Our guards have to go out there with a focus this time,” Quarterman said. “We have to try and slow those two guys down and try to get some stops.”
They really have no choice, considering they’re running out of opportunities to enhance their résumé for the NCAA tournament. Losing at home to Auburn didn’t help; falling to that same team on the road could be disastrous.
“It’s an important game for us.” Quarterman said. “We just have to go out there and act like it and play our hearts out on somebody else’s floor. We just have to go and grind this one out.”
Especially on the defensive end.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.