A relatively quiet Wednesday in LSU athletics provided at least a little hope for the future of the basketball program. While most other Tiger sports have produced reasons to be excited about them during the last two months, LSU hoops' late-season swoon somewhat soured many on the program and Johnny Jones.
Jordan Mickey staying for his sophomore year brings some renewed hope to the mix. While there was never much serious worry he'd flee for the NBA, his official return sets the stage for an expected NCAA Tournament run in Jones' make-or-break third season at LSU in 2014-15. With Johnny O'Bryant III already gone, the Tigers needed an elite talent inside to complement some burgeoning depth in the backcourt. Mickey will stabilize LSU's front-line and be a key building block as the Tigers try to take the next step after an NIT berth in 2014.
As for Mickey individually, I have no doubt he made the right choice. While his shot-swatting ability is NBA-ready and he's got a smooth jump shot, Mickey was going to be a major project. Similar to Tyrus Thomas - who, while not pro-ready after one year, still made the right choice. I mean, he was picked No. 4 in the 2006 draft - Mickey needs to add some bulk and polish his offensive game before facing the grind of the Association. Another year in an offense with a senior point guard, an immediate influx of outside shooting and a burgeoning force in Jarell Martin means Mickey won't be asked to carry the team while he sharpens his game. He can focus on his strengths, chief among them his defense and ability to finish near the rim. He should exit LSU, whether next year or the spring after, as one of the best shot-blockers in Tiger history. Meanwhile, if he can more effectively finish with his left hand and smooth out his low-post moves, he will be a lottery pick when he does come out. That's how good Mickey, already an All-SEC performer, could be with another year of seasoning. LSU is lucky to have him back.
Mickey's return will also force Jones' hand as far as the roster goes. LSU was already at the 13-scholarship limit this season and loses JOB along with seniors Andre Stringer and Shavon Coleman. But there are four incoming recruits (SG Josh Gray, C Elbert Robinson, PG Jalyn Patterson and PF Aaron Epps), and none of them are losing their offer. With transfer 2-guard Keith Hornsby and NCAA casualty Brian Bridgewater available this season, there will be one odd man out on LSU's current roster.
Though there's been chatter that Bridgewater might depart, if he stays, it's all about finding out who's is this year's Jalen Courtney. In my opinion, there's three prime candidates for a transfer: Malik Morgan, John Odo and Shane Hammink. To me, Morgan makes the most sense, given that Bridgewater (again, assuming he's part of LSU's future), Hornsby, Gray and Martin will hog the 2-3 spots next season. Morgan also considered transferring after last season and now faces an even-more uphill battle for playing time after his brutal knee injury, one that could keep him out through the fall schedule already.
Odo is less likely to go based on the circumstances. He's a rising senior who has already burned his transfer season and would essentially be hung out to dry. But his uninspiring paint presence and nonexistent offensive game are relatively useless to LSU at this point, meaning he's theoretically in play. Hammink is the most interesting option here. While he's showed flashes as a decent bench contributor, his playing time dwindled from his freshman year and he might be looking to see the floor more often. Still, Jones is reportedly high on the Euro-step specialist and did coach his father, Geert, making Hammink a legacy player. Shane also seems to love being a Tiger, making him a difficult discard for LSU. Tim Quarterman's name has also been thrown around, but I have a tough time seeing that happen after he continually received significant minutes during a (to put it kindly) lackluster freshman campaign.
But the answer might be plain, given Bridgewater's situation. While he might feel obligated to stick with the basketball squad, which supported him through NCAA clearinghouse issues and kept him on scholarship, there's been rumblings he wants to head across Nicholson Dr. and suit up in pads. He did play tight end for Episcopal in High School (drawing some attention from many college staffs, including LSU) and his 6-foot-5 frame would be an imposing force at tight end, even in the college game. If Bridgewater either chooses the pigskin at LSU or heads off to another school, then the Tigers' roster would essentially be set for next season already.
It's a promising roster, and honestly, one that could be more balanced despite the loss of Johnny O'Bryant III. With the taller Hornsby expected to replace Stringer's shooting acumen and Patterson a supremely talented incoming option in the backcourt, Hickey and Quarterman will only be pushed harder to earn their time. That's a good thing, especially for the notoriously erratic Hickey.
Martin started to look like an assertive scorer in the final month last season, and LSU will need him to continue that progression next year. Combine that with Mickey's shot-swatting prowess and a polished finishing touch in the paint, and LSU would be set. The X-factor will be incoming Juco transfer Josh Gray. In order for Martin, Mickey and the 7-footer Robinson to avoid double teams near the rim, the Tigers need a combo guard who can beat you to the bucket AND knock down a few triples. Gray is supposed to be that guy. From everything I know, he's got potential anywhere between Coleman and Marcus Thornton, another Texas JuCo transfer. Now, Thornton's impact would be aiming high but if Gray is a more polished offensive version of Coleman, LSU will be a versatile offensive threat in 2014-15.
But offense didn't doom last season's stretch run. Defense did. Mickey's biggest impact will obviously be felt on that end, but how will the defense fit around him? It's hard to say for sure, with nearly half of LSU's likely top 10 next season still yet to play a minute in Baton Rouge. But Hornsby and Gray are decidedly bigger options at the 2 guard than Stringer, who was always grossly undersized and hurt LSU defensively. That's an upgrade. Losing JOB is a bit of a hit, but no one would confuse him for a dominant or supremely active defensive presence. If anything, he was known for being in constant foul trouble. Losing an active player like Coleman hurts but some combination of Bridgewater, a more experienced Martin or Epps should be an adequate replacement. Hickey actually had a down season defensively, but his quick hands will always earn some steals. Mickey will be the centerpiece here and hopefully one that consistently scares opposing teams out of the lane.
Mickey is too talented to be the long-term future of LSU basketball. But one more year of greatness as a Tiger, if it brings a NCAA Tournament bid, could send LSU on the kind of immediate upward trajectory many predicted for the program after Jones' overachieving debut season. Mickey and Martin is not a bad duo to build around for a redemption season. Mickey's decision makes sense on every level, for him, his team and the future. Let's hope it pays off.
What do you think about Mickey's decision? Will he regret it? Is LSU an NCAA contender? Who do you think is most likely to transfer out of the program? It won't be an offseason of fireworks, but it should an interesting one nonetheless.