BATON ROUGE, La. — The fact that the LSU women’s basketball team is 11-3 and already has exceeded its win total from a miserable 2015-16 campaign is not surprising.
The Tigers’ 10-21 record last year marked coach Nikki Fargas’ only losing season in nine years at UCLA and LSU. So, a turnaround was kind of expected.
But how LSU is winning this season is an oddity.
The Tigers, eschewing the 3-pointer like no one else in college basketball, have been playing a style of offense that seems more in touch with the 1970s or early 1980s than today’s game.
No one in Division I has made or attempted fewer 3-pointers than LSU, which enters its first SEC home contest of the season today against Florida having made only 14 of 75 shots this season.
It’s not as if LSU is last in Division I by just a few shots, either. The SEC’s 13th-place team in made and attempted 3s is Texas A&M, which is 43 of 132 from long-range. Eight SEC teams have made more 3s than LSU has attempted. In fact, the Tigers have attempted so few 3s that their 3-point shooting percentage isn’t even calculated by the NCAA for national rankings.
Despite this seeming disdain for the outside game, LSU has fared well against the 19th-best schedule in the country according to the Ratings Percentage Index. Two of the losses, albeit ugly ones, came against Final Four-caliber opponents in UConn and Mississippi State.
So how are the Lady Tigers doing it, and why does Fargas hate 3-pointers so darn much?
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Mother of invention
No one seems to agree who first said “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but when one of the candidates is the Greek philosopher Plato, you can trust that the concept has been around awhile. And it’s at the core of LSU’s women’s basketball philosophy this season.
The late Pat Summitt might chuckle at the idea of a Fargas-led team being allergic to 3-pointers. Fargas, known in college as Nikki Caldwell before she got married, was once a 3-point ace for Summitt’s Tennessee teams, draining 128 of them in her career.
“I’m the one who wanted to bomb 3s in college,” Fargas said. “So go figure. I’m contradicting my own game.”
It’s because she has to.
LSU came into the season with two proven 3-point shooters in Chloe Jackson and Jenna Deemer. Deemer struggled to find her stroke early on, going 4-for-25 in LSU’s first seven games and has not played since due to illness.
That leaves Jackson, who is 6 of 22, as the lone long-ranger.
“The loss of Jenna Deemer has really been a blow to our team because of her ability to shoot the 3. Chloe has had to take a different leadership role, so we haven’t had the capability of spotting her up as much,” Fargas said. “But she too is somebody capable of shooting the 3. She’s had to handle the ball a little more.”
It’s a vastly different system than the one Jackson came to college for. Jackson played at North Carolina State as a freshman before transferring to LSU last year. The Wolfpack sling it more than practically anyone, ranking ninth in the country with 129 made 3-pointers this season.
“It took a little bit of an adjustment,” Jackson said. “Coach (Wes) Moore focuses on 3-pointers. He wants all of his guards to take 3-pointers. That was a big change coming from that to here.”
But, even as a shooting guard, Jackson thinks she’s a better fit in LSU’s system.
“The style we play is more transition, more getting up and down the court,” Jackson said. “It’s not too much set plays, but more of a dribble and pull-up type of game. And I’m fine with that because that was mostly my game in high school.”
Without the outside threat to scare opposing defenses, the transition game of turning defense into offense is essential for LSU’s success. And it’s an area in which the Tigers have excelled.
LSU has scored 341 of its 952 points (35.8 percent) off of turnovers. 104 of those points have come on fast breaks.
“We’re pretty athletic when you look at our ability to get the ball off the glass and get from point A to point B,” Fargas said. “(Alexis) Hyder and (Ayana) Mitchell can dribble and kick ahead.”
So even though they aren’t shooting much from the outside, LSU’s guards are still doing the majority of the team’s scoring. Guards have accounted for 599 (62.9 percent) of LSU’s points.
“When we play small ball, we play really fast,” Fargas said. “We’re turning people over and that allows our transition game to get better too.”
The green light can be earned
LSU’s unusually low number of 3-point shots naturally makes one wonder if there are repercussions for taking them, whether in the form of benching or extra practice sprints. That’s not the case. However, extra work does have to be put in before the Tigers are allowed to let it fly.
The magic number is 400.
“The philosophy is if you put up 400 made shots (in a week of practice), then you get the green light in the game. But you’ve got to put up the 400 made shots,” Fargas said. “I’m not pulling you if you put up a 3 and you’ve made 400 3s. That’s the part that I’d say is the negotiation of the deal. If you want the green light, then put in the work.”
Jackson grinned and admitted that she doesn’t always quite make it to that number.
“I don’t get up 400 shots before every game, I’ll be honest,” Jackson said. “But she does trust me to take them if they’re open.”
The Tigers found success in their non-conference schedule, including an impressive 27-point win at North Carolina. But can a team that doesn’t make 3-pointers continue winning against an SEC schedule?
It seems obvious that opponents would play zone defense to slow the game down and force LSU out of its comfort zone with outside shots, but so far that has rarely been the case. Fargas estimates that 80 percent of the defense LSU has seen so far has been man-to-man.
“We’ve seen some zone, but not a whole lot. I think people go to what their bread-and-butter defense is,” she said. “Mississippi State is a man-to-man team. But we will have to be aware of not allowing your offense to go stagnant against the zone.”
As long as what the Tigers are doing works, they don’t much care how it looks.
“I want us to take the best shot, whether it’s a 2-footer or a 12-footer. Our game plan is to score the ball at a high rate,” Fargas said. “We’ve shot better as a team percentage-wise (44.9 percent) than we did in the past where we’ve had 3-point shooters.
“Whatever your team is, you fit your offense to that team. Every year that may change.”