In case you missed it, LSU scored one of the biggest upsets in its recent hoops history last night. But, judging from the way the needle has barely moved, the chances are pretty good you did miss it. Or you saw the score, shrugged your shoulders, and went about your obsession with Signing Day.
Twenty-five years ago, LSU basketball was one of the premier national brands. OK, LSU wasn't North Carolina or anything, but LSU had a national following. The team played in front of packed houses, had a charismatic coach, and went to the tournament seemingly every year.*
*Actually, this is true. LSU went to ten straight NCAA tournaments and made either the NIT or NCAA field for fifteen consecutive seasons.
LSU basketball is now an afterthought, even on its own campus. We largely see basketball season as that dark period between football and baseball season, which is just sad how far the program has fallen. And it's going to take a lot more than one upset win over Mizzou to change things. Now, I do think Johnny Jones is the guy to right this ship and he has the program, finally, headed in the right direction. But he also has his work cut out for him. So what the heck happened to LSU basketball since Dale Brown retired?
Bad hires. I don't want to dance on the coaching graves of John Brady and Trent Johnson, but... oh, who am I kidding? John Brady was the worst kind of bad coach - a bad coach who constantly made excuses for his own underperformance and then somehow pulled out a great season once every three or four years, just in time to get a contract extension.
Brady managed to coach at LSU for ten and half seasons, an extremely long tenure at a program with only marginal success. In those 11 seasons, LSU had a winning record in conference three times. Of those three winning seasons, he won the SEC title twice and the Final Four once. How did he follow up those SEC titles? With a disastrous season. The 2000-01 team built off an SEC title and Sweet sixteen appearance by going 2-14 in the SEC. The 2006-07 team had the nucleus of the Final Four team returning, and went 5-11 in conference play.
That's eleven years of pretty consistent losing, with just two brilliant seasons that flared up and left fans only with ash. Trent Johnson came in and promised a more consistent and disciplined program, and delivered pretty much the same results. One brilliant season and an SEC title, followed by a bunch of dreck. I liked the Johnson hire at the time, but man, he did not do a good job at LSU. But at least he wasn't Brady.
A boring style. I love defense. Defense wins championships and all that. I like a team that plays tough defense in any sport, and I have fond memories of Dale Brown's Freak Defense.
But if you're gonna lose a lot, losing a lot of games in the 50's is somehow even more painful. Not only has LSU spent the better part of two decades getting its ass kicked, its also treated fans to a pretty brutal style of basketball. Games have been a brutal slog, which has driven fans away in droves. I mean, losing sucks, but losing while being boring is just the kiss of death. Why should fans show up to watch bad basketball that isn't even enjoyable to watch?
Football and baseball got great. Show me a major college team with a great college basketball program, and I'll probably show you a team with a lousy football program. There's some exceptions to this rule (hello, Florida!), but it's no accident that Kentucky is a basketball power. When your football team stinks, there is more incentive to pouring your resources into the basketball team, and as a bonus, it doesn't cost nearly as much. I hate to say it's easier to compete in basketball, but you do need less resources and one player can make a much bigger difference. Football is a massive investment of manpower and money.
LSU's most successful period in basketball coincided with some turbulent years on the gridiron. The 1980s weren't exactly a disaster for the football program, the Curley Hallman years were the true Dark Ages, but the seeds were sown for the slow decline of LSU football. Fans at least at hoops to support and hang their hats on.
Unfortunately for the basketball team, the decline of the basketball program and its eventual probation coincided with the worst era in LSU's football history. Into the void stepped the baseball team. Skip Bertman won his first national title in 1991. Shaq left campus in 1992. It didn't take a genius to see which program was going to get the love and attention from the fans and the athletic department. As the end of the Dale Brown era went into a tailspin, fans flocked to the only winner in twon: baseball. Make no mistake, the sudden explosion of our baseball program has everything to do with the sudden decline of our basketball program.
Eventually, football got good again and there was even less incentive to get the hoops program back to its former heights. For the last decade, LSU fans get their fix during the fall and the spring, and could spend the winter paying attention to recruiting. Bad basketball just became part of the mosaic of LSU sports, and we were no longer that we were no longer that emotionally invested in its success. Why worry, when you have football and baseball? Hell, if you really wanted a winner in basketball, you could have followed the women's team in the Pokey era.
Basketball fell off of our radar and worse, we found we didn't miss it.
Oh, and then college basketball started to suck nationwide. Most importantly, college basketball itself took a blow to the chin. In general, sports tend to improve over time. The best teams in football right now would kill the best teams from the 1980s. Whether it is because of better nutrition, tactics, equipment, or (ahem) chemistry, athletes keep getting better and better. College basketball is the counterpoint to this argument. The game has moved backwards, and interest has declined.
A lot of this has to do with the One and Done rule, which has absolutely gutted college basketball. The star players only stay one year, which means they never really reach their potential in college. But it's not just the talent drain, getting a one and done player can be just as big of a problem for a program, as dealing with their early departure causes a difficult situation. The biggest fish, which used to get most of the big time players, now get an even bigger share because they can promise the one thing smaller programs could: immediate playing time. And the dominoes keep falling, as guys who would have been important role players 20 years ago are now asked to be stars and carry their respective teams. It just leads to a lot of bad basketball that the nation has largely tuned out, except for three weekends in March.
Johnny Jones is working against all of these systemic factors. He didn't create the mess that is LSU basketball, but for the first time in a long time, it seems there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, there will still be LSU fans there to watch.