In his seemingly endless quest to find a fifth starter in his team’s first 15 games, LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones went through three big men: freshmen Elbert Robinson III and Aaron Epps and senior John Odo.
Just about when he was out of possibilities, Jones finally got what he was looking for in an 87-84 double-overtime win against Georgia on Jan. 10.
Looking down toward the end of his bench in a crucial game following a loss at Missouri two nights earlier, Jones called on little-used 7-foot sophomore center Darcy Malone, and the Australia native responded with 16 quality minutes.
Four games later, Malone is still giving Jones solid minutes — even if it’s not a lot compared to LSU’s top six players. As a result, Malone could be a key to Saturday’s 5 p.m. Southeastern Conference matchup with Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee.
While Malone’s production doesn’t turn heads at just 1.3 points and 1.0 rebounds per game, he can play an important role when LSU (14-4, 3-2) faces Vanderbilt (11-7, 1-4). The Commodores have lost four in a row since winning their SEC opener against Auburn.
Still, Vanderbilt poses a challenge with a big frontcourt that includes 6-10 center Damian Jones, a Baton Rouge native who has blossomed into one of the league’s top big men at 15.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, and 7-foot forward Luke Kornet.
Malone, who has played 58 minutes in the past four games after getting just 20 minutes in his first six outings, has the ability to help forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey combat Vanderbilt’s big front line — likely against Kornet.
“I guess you could say we’ve got pretty similar game styles and similar body styles as well,” Malone said. “That will be interesting. Of course, we have to see how we’re going to defend them going into it.”
But Jones and his coaching staff feel comfortable with what Malone has been giving them since he was rewarded with his first career start at Ole Miss three games ago.
Malone has seven points and seven rebounds in the past four games. But it’s what he gives the Tigers with his defense, like when he successfully switched off his man and took high-scoring Florida guard Michael Frazier II several times in Tuesday night’s bashing of the Gators.
“It’s a role. … Someone has to do it and, if I’m the one that has to do it, that’s what I have to do,” Malone said. “If we can go on the road and get 18-point wins over Florida, that’s the role I’m going to play. I’m not complaining; it’s good.”
Malone also has the ability to shoot the ball and play the high post with Martin and Mickey taking care of things down low.
“It’s quality minutes,” Martin said. “Darcy comes in and plays real hard and aggressive, getting rebounds and playing good defense. He does a good job opening the floor on offense, because he can pop out and knock down jumpers. That opens things up for everyone to drive the lane.”
Jones has certainly noticed, and Malone has logged 78 minutes, already five more than in 19 appearances a year ago.
“I think he’s given us some great minutes out there on the floor, both offensively and defensively,” Jones said. “We had to switch (defensively) against a good Florida basketball team with tremendous shooters. Darcy did a great job staying down and staying in front. On offense, because of his knowledge and understanding of what we’re doing, he’s been good. He doesn’t force anything and can stretch the floor; he’s a capable 3-point shooter.”
The best part is that Malone, who said he’s gaining confidence with each game, knows what his role is on a team that has four players averaging in double digits and a fifth scoring just under 10 points per game.
“A part of my role on this team is to be the guy that comes in and makes sure that, when I’m on the floor, I’m doing everything to the best of my ability,” he said. “I’m working hard, making sure my man doesn’t get the rebound, making sure I’m there on defense.”
As Malone becomes more comfortable and his confidence continues to grow, Jones said, so does that of his teammates in what he does for them.
“Our guys are confident in him. … He’s given us some really good minutes,” Jones said. “He’s steadily improving and continuing to make strides.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.