PodKATT: Everybody give a nice ATVS Welcome to Deniz Koray, who is joining our team this year to bring additional coverage in many areas, beginning with Men's Basketball.
It's been a long three years for the LSU men's basketball program. After a surprisingly successful start in Trent Johnson's first year in Baton Rouge, where the Tigers posted a 13-3 conference record and gave eventual national champions UNC one of their toughest tests in the NCAA Tournament, LSU has struggled since.
After winning a total of only five conference games in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, there was some reason for optimism this past February, when the Tigers reeled off four straight wins against conference foes. But before fans could think about an NCAA berth, the team dropped its final three games against stronger opponents, finishing with a 7-9 conference record, and then bowed out to Kentucky in the Conference Tournament.
Although much-criticized head coach Trent Johnson is no longer with the team, fans should expect the 2012-13 LSU Tigers to struggle again through deep stretches of their conference schedule. New head coach Johnny Jones inherits a team with limited ability and post-season prospects. Projected 11th in the pre-season SEC media poll, Jones's Tigers will go through some tough times this season.
Lack of size in the front court, heavy roster turnover, poor outside shooting, a dearth of high-profile recruits, and improved conference opponents should all contribute to the Tigers' growing pains over the next five months. However, there is reason for LSU fans to be optimistic about the future, as Jones has already shown himself to be a tireless recruiter, whose dynamism is already paying off in ways that weren't seen under the previous regime. But first, let's look at the outlook for this year's squad.
A Depleted (and Under-Sized) Roster
More than half of the scholarship players from last year's 18-15 roster are gone. The biggest loss is center Justin Hamilton, who left with a year of eligibility left, and was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers (although he has since signed a contract with the same Croatian club where Tweety Carter and DJ Strawberry now play). The team also lost three seniors, center Malcolm White, point guard Chris Bass, and power forward Storm Warren, while sophomore shooting guard Ralston Turner transferred to NC State and freshman guard John Isaac was dismissed from the team for academic issues.
As a result, this year's squad is very under-sized. Promising 6'9" and 265 pound sophomore Johnny O'Bryant has said multiple times that he prefers playing power forward to center, but there are no other players on the current roster who could even come close to filling in at the 5 spot. Regardless of his preference, O'Bryant must put in 25-30 minutes in the post in each conference game if the Tigers want to compete. Senior Eddie Ludwig and junior Jalen Courtney are the only other frontcourt players on the team, and they were the most lightly used players from last year's eleven-man rotation.
Barring an unforeseen improvement in the games of Ludwig and Courtney, who have never averaged more than 4 points or 3 rebounds per game, LSU will have to dole out significant minutes each game to players who aren't SEC-caliber or disguise their frontcourt deficiencies with some creative line-ups. One such strategy is running a 4-out, 1-in offense to compensate for roster deficiencies in the front court.
If you watched a lot of college basketball last year, you'll probably remember that Missouri ran a variation of that offense almost exclusively, and until a shocking flameout against Norfolk State in the first round of NCAAs, they were not only quite successful (posting a 30-4 record before the historic upset), but also one of the most entertaining teams in the country, forcing turnovers on defense and pushing for a fast break at every opportunity.
However, very few teams are able to replicate that kind of success running a 4-out, 1-in offense since their personnel lacks the talent and experience of the 2011-12 Mizzou team, which featured five seniors, some of the best shooters in the country (they made more than half their field goals, knocked down 40% of their threes and converted almost 77% of their free throws), and had Phil Pressey, arguably the fastest player in the country, running the show.
While sophomore Anthony Hickey is a very promising point guard who should be the team's best player, the LSU Tigers have significantly less experience, and they don't feature many dangerous shooters.
LSU's best outside shooter, Ralston Turner (37% from 3 last year), transferred, and the only two players on the team who made more than 0.3 three pointers per game were point guards Hickey and Andre Stringer. Neither of them hit even a third of their outside shots.
Fortunately, LSU welcomes 5th year senior Charles Carmouche, who transferred in from Memphis this summer and is automatically eligible due to an NCAA loophole for 5th year seniors. Carmouche is a sharpshooter who buried 46.2% of his threes last year (and 39.1% the year before). Carmouche will have to step up immediately for the Tigers to have a credible outside threat to open up space for Johnny O'Bryant in the paint and for Hickey and Stringer on their drives. Promising freshman Malik Morgan was considered an elite 3 point shooter in high school, and he will have to adjust quickly to NCAA defenses for LSU to play their best.
In addition to Carmouche and Morgan, LSU welcomes junior college transfer Shavon Coleman. Coleman, a 6'6" wing, averaged 14.6 points and 6.6 rebounds for Howard College last year, after scoring 9.8 points and grabbing 5.5 rebounds as a freshman. A highly touted player out of Thibodaux High in 2010, Coleman failed to meet D-1 academic standards, but is now ready to make an impact in the SEC. While Carmouche is a shooting guard, Coleman should be able to step in at small forward immediately. However, if coach Johnny Jones wants to put his five best players on the court, he may even need to play some power forward, much like Kim English, whose physique is almost identical to Coleman's, did last year at Mizzou.
The team also welcomes freshmen Corban Collins and Shane Hammink, the son of former Tiger center and NBA player Geert Hammink. Hammink played his high school ball at Canarias Basketball Academy in the Spanish Canary Islands so there isn't much game footage of him available, but his high school team is similar to American high schools like Oak Hill Academy and Findlay Prep, insofar as multiple players go to D-1 programs each year. However, none of their alums, which include Thomas de Thaey at NC State and Harlads Karlis at Seton Hall, have proven to be impactful players at the college level yet, and the staff needs to figure out which position suits Hammink best. I suspect he will be in the rotation as a wing, giving Coleman and Carmouche time to rest. Collins was a late addition to LSU, committing in mid-June. He is expected to provide depth at point guard this year, but minutes could be limited since Stringer and Hickey are two of the most established players on the team.
As you may have noticed, there isn't much size coming in. This is especially alarming since the Tigers lost three big men from last year's team. Jones tried to address this glaring hole in the roster by going for two quick fixes from the JUCO ranks. Unfortunately, neither 6'8" power forward Calvin Godfrey (who had a promising freshman season at Iowa State 2010-11, before being kicked off the team for marijuana possession and multiple violations of team rules) nor John Udoh were met academic requirements, so they will not be joining the team. However, the coaching staff is optimistic that the 6'10" Udoh will be able to play for the Tigers in the 2013-14 season after taking additional classes.
Possible Starting Line-Ups
If Johnny Jones wants to go with a fairly traditional starting line-up with defined positions, I would expect to see Hickey and Carmouche in the backcourt, Coleman at small forward, Ludwig at the 4 (unless Courtney has made significant strides this off-season), and O'Bryant at center. Andre Stringer would come off the bench for either Carmouche or Hickey, and the other key bench players would be Courtney (or Ludwig) and Malik Morgan.
If he wants to put the five best players in the court, Jones should put Hickey and Stringer in the backcourt, Carmouche at the 3, Coleman at the 4, and O'Bryant at center. However, this line-up would be even smaller at certain positions than last year's Mizzou team. As the season progressed, the Tigers could gain a bit more height in the line-up if Morgan moved into the shooting guard spot, and Stringer came off the bench for both guard positions. In this line-up, Ludwig and Courtney would offer spot minutes for O'Bryant at center and allow Coleman to play his natural position on the wing.
Collins and Hammink would round out either rotation.
Check back for Part 2 of the preview over the weekend, where I'll discuss LSU's non-conference and SEC schedules, as well as LSU's recruiting in upcoming classes.