In Part 1 of the season preview, we looked at the Tigers' personnel and how Johnny Jones could utilize his players in non-traditional roles to maximize his team's ability. Today, we'll take a look at what kind of results fans can expect on the floor.
In previous years, LSU had scheduled several deceptively difficult non-conference foes. Teams like Coastal Carolina, Wichita State, and Johnny Jones's own North Texas are not traditional powers in college basketball, so a close loss can look really bad for the casual fan. However, they were all worthy opponents capable of defeating any of LSU's rivals in the SEC West.
This year's schedule doesn't feature any sneaky mid-majors. While the Tigers will not be favored against Seton Hall or on the road against Marquette, anything worse than a 9-2 record in non-conference play guarantees that LSU suffered a genuinely bad loss.
LSU started the season against UC-Santa Barbara on November 9. Last year, UCSB was a dangerous team in the Big West, one of the most underrated small conferences in the country. However, with star guard Orlando Johnson now in the NBA and 2 other starters having graduated, this year's Gauchos are no longer the type of squad that is expected to compete for an NCAA Tournament berth. While the Tigers looked good in their opener, it's hard to infer a great deal from the performance. And the rest of the small conference opponents have even less talent.
While this is certainly not going to help the Tigers build their RPI, realistic fans should understand this team is at least a year away from even thinking about the NCAA Tournament. Therefore, the easy schedule in November and December should benefit a team working with a new coach, five newcomers, and no established identity on either side of the ball.
Prediction: LSU goes 9-2, beating all of their small conference opponents but losing to Seton Hall and on the road to Marquette
LSU's schedule is directly impacted by conference expansion. They will play two additional conference games each year due to the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M. As a result, LSU (and everyone else in the SEC) will have fewer opportunities to pad their win totals with home games against rent-a-wins.
However, an even more important change in the SEC schedule was implemented in the summer of 2011, when the East and West divisions were eliminated for basketball. For the past several seasons, there was a noticeable chasm in the quality of play between the two divisions. With Arkansas down for the past decade, it hasn't been surprising to see four of the top five teams in the conference coming from the SEC East. With the addition of Missouri, the East would have been even stronger if the division format had stayed.
Fortunately, LSU caught some breaks this season. They will only have one match-up against Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and there is a winnable home game against Vanderbilt, a traditionally strong team under Kevin Stallings, that will be having a rebuilding year following the loss of their six best players. However, the Tigers are ranked 11th in the pre-season media poll, ahead of only Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, so they will still be underdogs in many games.
Prediction: There are some weak teams in the SEC this year, and by luck of the draw, LSU has some fortunate home-and-home match-ups with Mississippi State and South Carolina. In the best-case scenario, LSU could challenge for a .500 record in conference play, although I am a bit more skeptical; 7-11 is more likely. There are two stretches, in late January and the final 6 games of the regular season, that could present significant difficulty.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
I've outlined several reasons why this will be a down year for LSU, but there is reason for optimism. Under Trent Johnson, it seemed like the rebuilding phase never stopped. There were positive signs when the 2010 recruiting class was assembled, but things fell apart quickly after K.C. Ross-Miller did not pass NCAA academic requirements. Matt Derenbecker transferred to Dayton in the summer of 2011, and Ralston Turner left the program this year, leaving Andre Stringer and Jalen Courtney as the only current players from that nationally-ranked group.
However, things are starting to move at a faster pace with new head coach Johnny Jones. There are already five players committed for the 2013 class. Earlier this week, LSU received a commitment from Jarrell Martin, a 6'9" power forward from Baton Rouge, who is the highest-rated player in the state since Greg Monroe and one of the highest rising prospects in the class of 2013. Martin chose LSU over Louisville, UCLA, and several SEC rivals and can be a program-defining recruit who helps make LSU a trendy destination for in-state kids who turned down the Tigers for the likes of Duke, Georgetown, Baylor, Texas, and Oklahoma State in the past decade and a half.
A 6'10" center, John Odoh may be coming a year later than expected, but he will help shore up frontcourt depth, along with 6'8" Deng Deng, a fellow JUCO prospect out of Texas. Additionally, LSU has picked up commitments from 6'5" Tim Quarterman, a versatile guard from Savannah, GA and 6'7" forward Jordan Mickey, who was intending to play for Deion Sanders's Prime Prep Academy, a Dallas charter school that opened its doors in August, but will have to sit out the year due to issues with his school transfer.
Mickey and Quarterman are elite regional prospects who chose LSU over top 25 mainstays like Texas, Louisville, Missouri, and Ohio State. The only current Tiger who had comparable recruiting accolades in the Johnson era was Johnny O'Bryant.
However, with the staff Johnny Jones has assembled at LSU, it's clear that top 50 recruits won't be considered outliers at LSU for long. Robert Kirby served as a top recruiter at Mississippi State from 1998 to 2010, and was actively involved in making Georgetown a feasible destination for elite Mississippi high schoolers the past two years. He may only be here for a few years before taking a head coaching position, but Kirby will be an asset for the Tigers. David Patrick's odyssey to LSU is a bit more exotic. Most recently a scout for the Houston Rockets, Patrick is perhaps the only college coach who has deep ties to Australia and Louisiana. Born in Bermuda, raised in Australia, and a graduate of the Dunham School (then known as Chapel Trafton) in Baton Rouge, Patrick went to Nicholls State before playing professionally back home in Oz. Patrick will be instrumental in connecting with Australian players, and he's already had experience in a previous stint coaching at St. Mary's (CA). Over the past few seasons, Canadian players have flourished in major D-1 programs, and the Australians are poised to be the next breakout nation.
One exciting prospect is 2014 5-star guard Dante Exum, who was the best player for the Australian U-17 team that finished 2nd in the World Championships this summer. LSU fans should also expect Patrick to play a key role in recruiting his high school teammate Ben Simmons, one of the elite wing prospects in the 2015 class who also started for the Aussies. LSU could also be on the radar for 7-foot high school freshman (not a typo) Thon Maker, an Australian of Sudanese origin, who will play for Eddie Ludwig's alma mater, Metairie Park Country Day.
Johnny Jones's head coaching resume is atypical for a school looking to re-emerge as a basketball power. After serving as a long-time assistant under Dale Brown, Jones coached North Texas for over a decade. He established some success there, but coaches who win fewer than 57 percent of their games in small conferences like the Sun Belt rarely step onto a national stage. Critics can question why he was hired over candidates with higher winning percentages, greater success in the NCAA Tournament, and stops at high-profile colleges.
However, Jones's enthusiasm has already brought back some excitement to the program in Baton Rouge, and with hires like Kirby and Patrick, Jones has made it clear that LSU's recruiting has already made significant strides in the past several months and should continue to ramp up regionally, nationally, and even internationally.
Although the 2012-13 season may not be memorable for LSU fans, there are many reasons to believe that the Tigers won't be in rebuilding mode for long.