Tall LSU squad provides obstacle for Missouri

Johnny O’Bryant III of LSU (left) tries to pull in a rebound from Mississippi’s Demarco Cox (4) during last Wednesday’s game in Oxford, Miss.

Johnny O’Bryant III of LSU (left) tries to pull in a rebound from Mississippi’s Demarco Cox (4) during last Wednesday’s game in Oxford, Miss. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — The Missouri Tigers are invited to a block party.

Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey anchor an imposing frontcourt for LSU, a team that ranks 16th in the nation by swatting an average of 6.25 shots per game.

For a Missouri squad (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) still looking for an inside scoring presence to emerge while featuring a backcourt that makes a living driving to the basket, LSU (11-5, 2-2 SEC) provides a stiff test when the teams tip off at 6 p.m. today (ESPNU-TV) in Baton Rouge, La.

“They’re probably the most talented team in terms of their front line in our league,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said Monday. “They’re big, they’re long, they’re athletic. In their building they play very, very physical, they play tough.”

O’Bryant, a 6-foot-9 junior, leads LSU with 14.3 points while blocking a shot per game. Mickey, a 6-foot-8 freshman, adds 13.1 points while blocking a jaw-dropping 3.6 shots each contest. That ranks sixth in the nation.

“When you have guys that are long and athletic like those guys are, they can make plays,” Haith said. “… When we get the ball in those two-foot shot (situations) that we’re not making right now, we have to be aggressive. We have to attack. If we shy away they’re going to block them. That’s like a turnover too. We’ve got to chin that ball and attack those guys. If we don’t have it, pass it back out and spread that ball around and share it.”

LSU blocks 14.3 percent of its opponents’ shots, good for 34th in the nation. When O’Bryant and Mickey aren’t swatting shots, they’re certainly altering them. Opponents make just 40.6 percent of their 2-point field goals against LSU, a number that ranks the Tigers seventh in the country.

“That’s how it is playing against any shot-blocker,” Missouri forward Ryan Rosburg said. “You always have to be on your toes, have different kinds of finishes. Up-and-unders, shot fakes, use the rim. You definitely think about that in the top of your head.”

But that won’t change how Missouri point guard Jordan Clarkson plans to score.

“No, not at all. Just going to keep attacking the basket. I know how to finish over bigger guys,” he said.

The numbers suggest LSU’s twin towers are hard to keep off the scoreboard as well.

“Being a really good defender is doing your work early, not allowing people to get two feet in the paint and establish post position,” Haith said. “If we do that with some physicality, with our chests, with our backs, I think we’ll have success with our post guys being defenders.”

As if O’Bryant and Mickey didn’t already do enough with their scoring and ability to block shots, consider they lead the way for the nation’s 12th-best rebounding team at 41.6 per game. O’Bryant grabs 7.6 per game while Mickey pulls down 6.9.

While Missouri’s starting frontcourt of Johnathan Williams III (7.1 ppg) and Rosburg (4.5 ppg) might struggle to score against O’Bryant and Mickey, their contributions in other areas are just as vital for Missouri to pull out a victory.

“We’re not looking for them to score as much,” Haith said. “They have to be great screeners, great rebounders, great defenders. We need that out of them every single night. That’s something they can give us.”

If LSU’s frontcourt wasn’t imposing enough, its backcourt causes just as many problems. At least on the defensive end.

LSU ranks 10th in the nation by notching 9.38 steals per game. The Tigers force turnovers on 12.9 percent of their opponents’ possessions, good for 11th in the nation. Starting guard Anthony Hickey ranks 25th individually with 2.31 steals per game.

“You have to protect the ball, their guards have great hands,” Haith said. “We have to be strong with the ball, we have to make good, solid decisions, we have to meet passes and we have to play with a sense of urgency, we have to play with some intensity. Because they’re a type of team that if you don’t, because of their talent they can expose you.

“(Andre) Stringer and Hickey were always very good at getting steals. They’re strong, they anticipate well. It’s really important that we don’t have live-ball turnovers against those guys.”

Stringer comes off the bench to give LSU 12 points and 1.3 steals per game.

Missouri’s scoring primarily comes from a trio of guards. The Tigers, however, have a new scoring leader. Jabari Brown holds a slight edge over Clarkson with 18.8 ppg compared to 18.6 ppg. Earnest Ross rounds out the big three with 13.9 ppg.

“They’re a tremendous talent, all three of those guys,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said. “When you have guard play like that, guys averaging double figures, that’s obviously a difficult matchup. You just want to try to contain and hopefully can stay in front of them. They’re tough to stop. You want to be hopeful that you can get them out of their rhythm.

“They rely a lot on their scoring ability, and rightfully so. Excellent at getting into the paint, at stretching your defense. Definitely a tough matchup and our guys are certainly are going to have to be ready to exhaust everything they have to defend them (tonight).”

Missouri then will return home for a Saturday game against South Carolina. Tip-off is set for 3 p.m.

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