By Trey Mongrue
When Keith Hornsby was looking at prospective college basketball programs to transfer to, he placed an importance on the style of play.
One of the things that Hornsby enjoyed during his time with UNC-Asheville as a freshman and sophomore was the way the Bulldogs would often push the ball up the floor at an accelerated pace. It was one of the many reasons in why he chose LSU as his destination in 2013.
But it was not until after a couple of practices under LSU coach Johnny Jones that Hornsby quickly learned what an up-tempo really was all about.
“We didn’t quite run as much [at UNC-Ashville] as we do here,” the junior guard said. “I feel like our practices match the games in intensity and speed.”
Coming off a loss at Mississippi State, Hornsby and the rest of the Tigers can’t afford to dwell on the past too much with a pivotal three game stretch at home due up that includes welcoming the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats next Tuesday.
But don’t expect any drastic changes just because of the setback in Starkville. LSU will continue to run up and down the court.
It’s just their style.
“Our running game is one of our main strengths,” Hornsby explained. “With every opportunity that we have in a game, we will run.”
Whether it’s selling out for a steal on the defensive or the guards leaking out to quickly receive the outlet pass from the rebounder for a quick transition, Jones wants LSU to always keep the game moving.
In the final season under Trent Johnson, LSU ranked 128th in possessions per game, averaging 68.9. That quickly changed when Jones took over.
“We want to make sure that we’re the ones who are controlling the tempo,” said Jones. “There are certainly going to be teams that want to slow it down on us.”
In the three years that Jones has been at the helm, LSU has never dropped past the top 40 in possessions per game. With this season being the first where every player on the roster was recruited by him, Jones has the Tigers averaging 74.6 possessions which ranks eighth in the NCAA.
A lot of that is attributed to having a big men like Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey that are capable of running the full length of court almost as fast as the guards.
“We like to rebound and push the ball,” said Mickey who did his fair share of rebounding against Mississippi State, pulling down a career-high 20 rebounds to go along with 25 points – the first 20-20 game in LSU history since Geert Hammink did it in 1992.
“We’re always looking to get it out to the guards and quickly make plays.”
It has been both a blessing and a curse for LSU.
Going up against a similar up-tempo team like West Virginia, the breakneck speed of that game fit right in the Tigers’ scheme and they were able to recover from a five point halftime deficit to record the signature road win over the Mountaineers.
In a perfect world, LSU would love every game to be as fast as that one. But implementing a rotation that has been whittled down to seven players who all average over 20 minutes per game, exhaustion does occur.
“I has definitely been exhausting for us,” Martin said. “We’re playing a lot of minutes in this up-tempo style of play so we have to find ways to dig down deeper and pull that extra burst of energy out and just give it our all.”
Outside of an 18-point victory at Florida a couple of weeks ago, LSU has hardly been able to hold onto a big lead in Southeastern Conference play. Despite the 5-3 conference record, the Tigers have only outscored their opponents three times in the second half and have been taken to overtime three times.
“It is a little tiring,” laughed Mickey. “We just have to be able to grind out games like that. Of course you are going to be tired, but you can be tired the next day. We have to finish those games out.”
And then, there are other times when opposing team’s stymie LSU’s pace by slowing the game down as much as possible.
In both the Tigers’ losses to Texas A&M and Mississippi State, LSU found itself just throwing the ball around the perimeter before throwing up contested three-pointers with their opponents bunkering down in a 3-2 zone defense, halting the game’s momentum.
“When other teams slow the game down, we have to be able to adjust with them,” said Martin. “We need to keep moving the ball from side to side and just be real patient in our offense.”
That has led to some extra work in practice. Not to actively switch to a slower tempo, but to just be ready for it when it inevitably comes in certain points during a game.
“We want to be able to execute in a slower tempo game and I think that we’ve gotten better at that,” Hornsby explained. “If a team does slow it down, we should be able to capitalize on that too.”
In an SEC race that is still searching for some separation from the field behind Kentucky, Hornsby and the Tigers know that they have to do a little bit of everything to not be the one that falls by the wayside. And with February rolling around, the pace and intensity will assuredly pick up.
Luckily for the Tigers, they like to run.