Skip to main content

After months of work, LSU's defense is ready for the big stage

On3 imageby:Matthew Brune03/22/24


Entering the year, LSU was the No. 1 team in the country, but it wasn’t because of their defensive reputation. Kim Mulkey knew that. The Tigers’ Hall of Fame head coach repeatedly talked about how her team could roll the ball out and score 80+ without blinking.

It was always the defense that kept her up at night.

The first game against Colorado was a stark reminder of what wins games at the highest level. An embarrassing loss like that was exactly what Mulkey needed to fuel the push for defensive improvement over the next four months, so much so that Angel Reese brought up that game on the day before the start of the NCAA Tournament in late March.

“In the beginning of the season, we focused so much on offense, offense, offense, offense, and we neglected defense and what it’s going to take,” Reese said. “We can’t just beat these teams and outscore these teams. These teams are really good and they can outscore you. And we’ve seen that earlier on this season. Our first game out of the gate, Colorado killed us. We didn’t play any defense, offensively we were struggling. Just being able to see us, being able to put everything else to the side, not care about stats, not care about personal goals and understand what it’s going to take to win a national championship.”

The past four months have been trying to avoid that feeling again, but now the mentality flips. The Tigers now have their eyes on another title. They’ve dealt with a season-ending injury to SaMyah Smith, a dismissal of Kateri Poole, and waves of uncertainty throughout the year, but everyone feels settled in now.

Tipoff vs. Rice on Friday at 3 p.m. will mark the start of another NCAA Tournament in the PMAC with two of the best defensive coaches in the country in Mulkey and assistant coach Bob Starkey.

The approach is different this year, compared to last year’s surprise run at the title. Now, the team that was the preseason No. 1 is not sneaking up on anyone. Expectations are set.

“Coming into this year, we have a national championship, projected number No. 1,” Reese said. “We took a couple losses, but finished strong. So it’s definitely a different feeling now. I feel like more of a chip on our shoulder this year going into it, but our team is gelling at the right time. Last year’s team, I didn’t really know how far we would go. This year’s team, we know what we have at this point and now it’s just win or go home.”

LSU’s return to a championship level

LSU has played 22 games against high-major teams this year. In the first 11 games, spanning from the start of the year through Jan. 29 — the loss to Mississippi State, LSU had an average defensive rating of 95.3. That means for every 100 defensive possessions, LSU was allowing 95.3 points.

For context, Kim Mulkey has never had a team with a defensive rating worse than a 89.5 defensive rating in conference play in her career. Most were in the 70s.

Over the last 11 games, from Feb. 4 to March 10, LSU’s average defensive rating has been 81.4. That would be a top 15 mark in the country. The hard work has paid off. LSU is defending as well as anyone in the country right now.

“The main thing was just time with each other and time in practice and an emphasis on building that part of our team,” Hailey Van Lith said. “I think at the beginning of this season, we were caught up in how well we could score and how fun that was, and we neglected the other side of the game. And we were real with ourselves. We recognized that that was something we needed to fix. And then we fixed it.”

It took hours upon hours of film study, practices without touching a basketball, and perhaps a shift in how Mulkey coaches defense to get here. With athletic wings and bigs, she’s extended her defense further than she usually does, forcing 10.8 steals per game, the most of any Mulkey team ever and top 15 in the country.

She’s talked about the ability to hedge now with Reese and Aneesah Morrow, allowing them to be even more aggressive. Meanwhile, the growth of Hailey Van Lith has been tangible alongside high-level defenders Flau’Jae Johnson, Aneesah Morrow, Angel Reese and Last-Tear Poa.

Getting the freshmen prepared for this run has been the key. Mikaylah Williams and Aalyah Del Rosario are still a work in progress, but whether they’re ready or not, the training wheels are coming off. It’s time to go.

The past four months have been working towards this playoff run. It wasn’t another undefeated season for Mulkey or even just two losses like last year, this team has felt the lows of tough losses and has bounced back stronger every time. Can LSU win another championship? Certainly, but for the most talented offensive team in the country, it all hinges on the defense.

“I’ve said all along, we can score the ball, on our worst day, I’ve got that many scorers, but we had to buy in to be a better defensive team,” Mulkey said. “I just thought if we’re going to go very far in the playoffs, we have to get better through the course of the year defensively and that’s where our biggest improvement has been. Nobody likes defense. When you have that many scorers on a team, I doubt any of them had to be the defensive stopper growing up. If we can do it collectively, if we can help each other, take pride in it and get excited about it as much as we do the offensive end, I think you can have a good season and a good run in the playoffs.”

You may also like