NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The LSU men's basketball team had its chance on Wednesday to check out the floor of the Bridgestone Arena in preparation for Thursday's second-round contest of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The Tigers, the ninth seed, will face eighth-seed Georgia at noon CST in the first of four second-round games after the tournament opened with two games on Wednesday evening. The LSU-Georgia game will be televised on the SEC Network (Louisiana affiliates: Alexandria - KLAX-DTs; Baton Rouge - WBXH; Lafayette - KLAF; Monroe - KARD; New Orleans - WUPL; Shreveport - KMSS). Brad Nessler, Jimmy Dykes and Shannon Spake will have the call.
Jim Hawthorne and Ricky Blanton with studio host Kevin Ford will have the broadcast on the affiliates of the LSU Sports Radio Network (Eagle 98.1 FM in Baton Rouge and in the Geaux Zone at LSUsports.net).
LSU is 18-11 overall and 9-9 in the SEC, while Georgia is 15-16 overall and 9-9 in the league. The Bulldogs beat LSU, 67-58, in the fourth game of the SEC season in Athens, the final game of LSU' s tough 0-4 start before LSU was able to right things and win 9-of-the-last-14 league games.
But the game in January was closer much of the way than the final score indicated.
The game was tied at 54 with 4:41 to play as LSU was able to force issues for the Bulldogs with its helter-skelter press. Georgia missed a layup, but LSU turned the ball over and Georgia got points off the LSU turnover (14-6 advantage in final 20 minutes) and Georgia led by three. LSU turned the ball over again and UGA would eventually get a bucket to make the lead five with 2:49 left. The teams would swap two free throws and then two more LSU turnovers would result in four UGA free throws to push the lead to nine. LSU would be outscored 13-4 over the final minutes of the game.
The Tigers played without Charles Carmouche who was out with tendonitis. LSU made 18-of-50 shots, 36.0%, and 6-of-17 treys (35.3 percent). Georgia however, was 22-of-47 overall and 4-of-12 from the arc. LSU out rebounded Georgia, 38-29, but LSU had 21 turnovers and UGA was able to get 19 points off the turnovers, compared to LSU getting just 8 points off the 16 Georgia turnovers.
Johnny O'Bryant III had a career high of 14 rebounds and a double double with 16 points, making 5-of-8 from the field and 6-of-8 from the line. Anthony Hickey had 12 points, six rebounds with five steals, while Malik Morgan stepped in for Carmouche and had his first double figure game of 11 points.
This will be the ninth time the Tigers and Bulldogs have met in the SEC Tournament and the Tigers lead 5-3 in those games.
Georgia had a five-game win streak at one time in the season but has lost five of their last eight. However, in those wins were victories at home over Tennessee and Kentucky. Both team lost in their final games on Saturday - Georgia at Alabama and LSU at home against Ole Miss.
LSU is expected to go with the lineup it has used the last several games with Carmouche, Hickey and Andre Stringer at guards with O'Bryant III at forward and Andrew Del Piero at center. O'Bryant III leads LSU in scoring at 13.8 points per game with Hickey at 11.8 points and Carmouche, with five 20-point games in the last seven games, at 10.8 points per game.
SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leads Georgia at 18 points per game for Coach Mark Fox.
The team practiced for 45 minutes at the Bridgestone Arena before returning to their headquarters hotel in downtown Nashville for a brief lunch. The team concluded their preparations at Memorial Gymnasium on the Vanderbilt campus where they went over the scouting report for the Bulldogs.
The winner of the LSU-Georgia game will come back on Friday at noon to face the top seed, the Florida Gators.
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Here are the comments from LSU and Georgia coaches and players at their pre-tournament press conferences:
THE MODERATOR: We're ready to begin with the LSU media session. We'll begin and ask Coach Jones for his thoughts on his team coming in the tournament. We'll take questions just for the two student athletes and excuse them back to the locker room and finish up with Coach Jones.
COACH JONES: First of all, we wanted to say we're excited about the tournament this week. We know that we feel like we've had an exciting season, very challenging and feel like we're very competitive throughout the conference season and regular season is over, and we know how important and the importance of the conference tournament, what it means and how it will affect us going forward, and we look forward to the challenges that are in front of us in playing a really hot team in Georgia.
THE MODERATOR: All right. We'll take your questions.
Q. Charles, Johnny, can you guys talk about, you know, kind -- the time you lost to Georgia, 0-4: Did the coach moderate his message or change his message to y'all in terms of how you're going to get out of it or was it pretty much a level sort of message passed along to you guys?
CHARLES CARMOUCHE: I feel at the time when we played them the first time, like you said, we weren't playing our best basketball. It was the beginning of the SEC and we started off 0-4 pretty slow, and it was just a learning experience for us, a new team, new coach, just trying to jell, playing in a new conference, kind of picked it up towards the end. Feels a lot more comfortable playing them this time. Should be a great game.
Q. Can you talk about how you reinvented the second half of your career after you went to Memphis and went back home to where you name really fits the state, Carmouche. Can you talk about reinventing your career and how good it's been to play for Coach Jones.
CHARLES CARMOUCHE: It's been great. I think going to Memphis prepared me well to come in here and just -- be this leader and help this team. LSU, I grew up catching them play basketball so I know about the history. Coach who played at LSU, we both coming in at the same time. So it was pretty good fit for me and I've been enjoying this experience and not ready for it to end, so --
Q. This is for Charles as well. You guys have had some sort of a rebound this season. Your team has improved so far, because I know you don't want this ride to end at the moment.
CHARLES CARMOUCHE: I think we've improved a lot, feel good about coming into the tournament. I feel as though we all have the same opportunity, every team has the same opportunity, playing neutral site, new beginning for everybody, try to get to the tournament. So I feel good about our chances and just got to take it one game at a time and, you know, come out and play for 40 minutes each day.
Q. Johnny, just, you know, Charles has had two, three head coaches. Had to make that transition how did he help you guys go through the process when Coach Jones arrived?
JOHNNY O'BRYANT III: Like you say, he's been through a bunch of different experiences, you know, he was been to the NCAA Tournament, won conference championships. He comes to tell us what it takes to win at this level and it really helps the locker room.
THE MODERATOR: All right. We'll excuse you fellas. You can return to the locker room. Thank you very much. We'll continue on with questions now for Coach Jones. Please raise your hand and we'll get a microphone to you.
Q. Johnny, can you talk about Charles, this year and the last half of the year he really seemed to come on. What kicked in for him?
COACH JONES: I thought Charles has done a tremendous job in terms of transitioning into our team. I thought just like the other players, there was a period that he was trying to adapt to what we were asking him to do, and I thought the latter part of the season he really seemed as though the chemistry was right, accepted the role really that we were asking him to play and really has flourished in the system that we run and have really stepped up and really become that leader. And it wasn't anything that was given to him, it was one of those things that he had to work for and the respect that he had gained from his teammates.
Q. Same kind of question for Charles and Johnny. Did you have to change your message to them around the time of the Georgia game or your style to sort of maintain an even keel in a narrow window?
COACH JONES: I think what allowed us to have the success that we did that I didn't have to change the message, because when I came in, I talked about the season being a journey and after each game we will look back and see exactly where we were, and if it was a setback, we needed to evaluate exactly where we were, what transpired and what we did and need to do moving forward so we didn't get too low, and when we had success it was the same thing. The journey we would evaluate exactly where we are, why did we have that type of success and we were looking forward to our next opportunity.
So when we have those setbacks, it was something that was in that moment but we didn't allow ourselves to sit there and worry about it. It was about improving each practice and trying to improve each game.
Q. On the conference calls, Coach Calipari said he called you and Mark Fox and complimented you guys on how you have done, how you guys have righted the ship. When did that conversation happen with Coach Calipari and was the nature of that chat that you two had?
COACH JONES: It was in the early part of the year. I have a great deal of respect for Coach Calipari. You're talking about a guy who had his team in numerous Final Fours, has won the championships, and for someone of that caliber to call you and talk about your team and your program where they are and when you've gone through your highs and your lows at the same time, it meant a lot.
As a matter of fact, if I'm not mistaken, I may have even shared not necessarily the conversation but that he had called and complimented the guys on the effort, the way they've played and really complimented them on where they were at this point.
Q. Coach, could you talk about this first year of the format with 14 teams and playing -- teams playing on Wednesday night and what you think of it and do you think all 14 teams should come to the tournament?
COACH JONES: Well, absolutely. I think when you talk about a conference of this magnitude and the challenges and the parity that it presents and teams play extremely well, I think you can look back only, I guess a few years ago, when Georgia who was possibly in last place and had no chance getting into the NCAA Tournament outside of winning the conference tournament, and I think the great thing about college basketball is all about the student athletes and the experience that they gain during that time there and you don't want to ever put them in a situation that they're not included.
You look for reasons to included instead of exclude, and so I think it's great when you have the opportunity for them to come into the tournament and have that one last effort and enjoy the experience if it's nothing more than the conference tournament when you talk about an SEC, BCS level at which they put these tournaments on, it's a great experience for those young men.
I like the conference format. There could be tweaks and all those things, but I'm excited about having an opportunity to play the schedule that we've played and everybody I think have an opportunity to play and you just have to be at your best. I'm sure you can have your gripes, but I think that's with everything.
Q. How close have you guys come to maximizing what the potential is?
COACH JONES: I'm not sure. I think I have to look back at the end of the year because these guys have continued to really amaze me. I wasn't sure at the beginning of the season exactly where we would be today, and I'll tell you, we're a lot further along right now than I thought we would be, and I think they've made some unbelievable strides in not only games, not just talking about the games that we've won but in games we've had setbacks and taking them into that environment, say, for instance, like a Kentucky and with three seconds left only, one point down, I thought it spoke to the volume of the effort that our young men were putting into the game and not knowing if that was possible early on.
So, they've continued to get better and they've, I guess each night that we've gone out, they've continued to improve. So, I have not set a marker on them yet on where I think their limit is.
Q. Coach, a lot of people I think you said after the season finale that this team has kind of exceeded your own expectations for what you thought coming in. When are you going to go through your self-evaluation process and what's going to go into that, or do you even do much self-reflection on the job right now?
COACH JONES: Oh, absolutely. At the end of any season you want to do that. I think anytime you stop doing that it's time for you to retire and get out of it because you want to continue and improve. If you win the national championships, you get excited about the moment. After that, you have to go back and regroup and see how you get your program and team better.
I'll do the same thing at the end of the year and we'll evaluate the program, where we are in terms of what we did, what we could have done better recruiting, and I think just the whole format that you need as a basketball coach to be at your best and make sure that your program and you're giving your fan base and your university the best, and I think that's important each year.
Q. Could you talk about the play of Hickey this year and also maybe how you've seen him maybe grow off the Court as well as on the Court?
COACH JONES: Yes, sir. I thought early on I thought there were some challenges there for Anthony, tremendous person, great young man, but I just thought that there were some guidance that needed to be really in place for him and possibly exactly what our expectations were of him and for me, point guard is kind of like the quarterback of your basketball team, and it's important that those guys play a special role and show some type of leadership, and we wanted to make sure that he was on that right path and his teammates had an opportunity to look at him in a different way in the way he would lead, and I think he struggled with it early on, but I think he's grasped it and I think he's welcomed it with open arms.
I think he's really played extremely well down the stretch for us and really have bought in to what we're asking him to do, and I think he's seen the success that he's had because of and I think it's been great for him.
The Georgia Bulldogs
THE MODERATOR: We'll ask Coach Fox for his general thoughts on the Georgia team coming into the tournament, then we'll take your questions just for the two student athletes, excuse them and then finish up with Coach Fox. Coach, if you would begin.
COACH FOX: Well, we're excited to be in Nashville. This is a great tournament. I think it will be an outstanding tournament with the amount of parity we have in the league. Certainly with 14 teams it's a more special event this year, so we come here very excited to be a part of it, really with I think an optimistic approach. We like how we've been playing for the last month and a half, and hopefully we can play well and advance in this tournament.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for either of the two student athletes.
Q. Kentavious and Nemanja, in general what's the motivation for this tournament? Lot of times teams feel like they're playing for NCAA seeding and NCAA bid. Is it for the SEC trophy? Is it to get in the NIT? Is it just to win the next game?
KENTATAVIOUS CALDWELL-POPE: Really we just plan to win. We just come here with our mindset that we going to win the next game and we got to keep that mindset and stay focused and do that.
NEMANJA DJURISIC: Exactly the same. I mean that's how we worked throughout the whole season. That's how we found success, focusing on the next game and enjoying playing each other and enjoying the week. That's the most important thing.
Q. This question is for Kentavious. You raised your shooting percentage by 13 points this season. Do you feel like you're more comfortable in the SEC the second time around?
KENTATAVIOUS CALDWELL-POPE: Yes, my second time around, I just found using the offense to my advantage and taking open shots that they give me.
Q. Kentavious, obviously there was the 1-3 start for you guys. Did you guys have to do anything drastic to sort of close the way you guys have so far or just focusing, narrow kind of vision in the next game? What was your sort of process to maybe start to turn things around over the latter part of the season?
KENTATAVIOUS CALDWELL-POPE: Just came together and started playing hard. That really turned things around for us. We just kept doing each game. We finished a lot of games, but right now we just got to continue to stay focused, keep believing in each other and keep moving forward.
NEMANJA DJURISIC: I think we found the ways to score on the offense, find ways to play with each other best we can. I think we learned how to play hard. I think a lot of young guys contributed a lot late in the season, and I think just the experience that we all gained from the season kind of came in late and we started playing better and I think we're a really good team. We play together and that's the most important. I think that's it.
THE MODERATOR: Other questions for either of the student athletes? Okay, fellas. We'll excuse you. You can return to the locker room. We'll take questions for Coach Fox. If you'll raise your hand.
Q. Coach, since the Texas A & M game back in January, your team has either won all your conference games or losing by no more than ten points. Does that give you any extra momentum coming into this tournament?
COACH FOX: Well, I think we've either won or had the games decided in the final, you know, possession or two. So I think that we feel like we've played pretty consistent. I think our team has a confidence level that when they play the game the right way that they'll have chances to win, and so the fact that we've been able to do that for, you know, several weeks, I think gives these guys some confidence going into the tournament.
Q. Mark, what do you guys call upon when you lose a game in the last possession or call or whatever it might be to forge ahead, to not let that affect going forward?
COACH FOX: You know, I think every game has been different. You know, there were some games they were angry and it was straight anger that brought them back. There was a couple games like that. I think there were some other games when they just had pride in their team and pride in themselves, and we talk a lot in our program about, you know, showing up every day and so you're going to have tough times in life and athletics is a great tool to teach you how to deal with those things and, you know, all year we talk about, you know, showing up and getting your job done every day. That's helped us also. I think we've had a range of emotions from anger to pride and just, you know, testament to our character to show up and do all that we can do to win.
Q. Mark, how have you -- obviously Kentavious is a huge part of what you guys do offensively. How have you gone about flushing out roles for them and still giving Kentavious the freedom to operate in your system?
COACH FOX: Kentavious and Nemanja were two of the problems early in the year. Those guys did not play well. They did not play well in November. They didn't finish plays in a percentage that we wanted them to. So, you know, I think the issue for us early were those guys weren't playing well offensively and our new guys, they weren't playing defensively, and really all that we've done is get those guys back to a level offensively that's been consistent and then our new players and our young players have all improved and become much more consistent performers.
Q. Coach, obviously Kentavious after his announcement as player of the year there was a lot of NBA discussion. What will be the actual process? You've obviously went down the road with Lesley and Tompkins just a couple years ago. What will be your process for advising them on that and do you have a strong opinion on it at this point?
COACH FOX: Well, I've been through it several times, not just with those two kids, but I would say this is probably my ninth or tenth time through it with an underclassman. I think the key in the entire situation is that we realize that we're talking about a young man's life. This is a career and a life-changing decision. It's one that -- decision will be made and it may not be made -- may be made in the spring, may be made a year from now. It doesn't have to be made right away. The key is that you get the accurate information to make that decision.
This is Kentavious's decision. He'll do what's best for him. It's not about anybody other than him. It's not about Georgia, it's not about his family, it's about him. And he's got a wonderful family that's very supportive, but we'll make sure the process will be that we get the accurate information from the NBA people who make decisions and I'll assist him in gathering that information and make sure that he has all the facts to weigh in the process.
Q. Mark, you talked about playing angry. I presume you mean it reacting to the games in the second half of the season, the SEC season. At 2-7 to start, 1-4 SEC play, how did the team get off the mat at that point emotionally?
COACH FOX: Well, I would say anger, there was only anger for a couple games. At the Ole Miss game they were angry how that went down. I think that when we were 2-7, we went into the season knowing that we were going to have freshmen and sophomores play major roles, and two of those games we lost in overtime and we just weren't good enough, we weren't playing well enough and we just, you know -- I think we have trusted in the process. At 1-4 there was no panic because we played the Gators twice and played at Missouri and had the toughest part of our schedule.
So I think our team trusts in our coaching staff. We've got really good young people who we believed would stay the course and really all we've done is that, just kept plugging along and stayed fully vested in the process.