Sorry y'all, but LSU is a #BasketballSchool for the next four months or so.
Sure, there's still a Heisman contender on a 7-1 team across N Stadium Rd from the PMAC and another talented title contender on the diamond come February. But them's the rules when you've got the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and a bevy of experience and talent around him. And it's about damn time, because this is a hoops program that's been an afterthought in its own backyard for over 20 years now.
Yes, the already-legendary Ben Simmons may end up the best LSU hoopster since Shaq. He's also a vital shot in the arm for Tiger basketball, which has had trouble gaining traction among fans despite Johnny Jones stabilizing a program that's fluctuated wildly for two decades. All that said, this season will come down a lot more to the gritty and the details than the glitz and glamour that Simmons, fellow five-star Antonio Blakeney, and Tim Quarterman will provide a packed PMAC.
How's that for a start to a season preview? Before the year even begins, I'm telling you the PMAC will be packed on the regular and LSU fans will fall for roundball all over again.
2015: What A Time To Be Alive.
Before the season gets underway Friday night against McNeese, let's delve into a Tiger squad that has high expectations along with some pesky unknowns.
This is LSU's deepest backcourt in 15 years — and arguably going back to the Dale Brown days. The familiar actors from last year's bunch are all back along with a heralded pair of freshmen.
Keith Hornsby came up huge last season, playing solid on-ball defense, nailing some clutch treys and spreading the floor. Unfortunately, he'll miss the season's first month recovering from surgery for an undisclosed injury. While he wasn't the nation's leading free-throw shooter as advertised, he was LSU's premier perimeter scoring option last spring. He'll be sorely missed early on. His setback does allow some younger players to see significant time early in the season, readying them for a more rigorous SEC slate and saving Hornsby's legs for March. When healthy, he's LSU purest spot-up shooter, his odd shooting motion notwithstanding.
Brandon Sampson may be the biggest beneficiary of Hornsby's absence. The Madison Prep four-star two guard was a top 100 recruit yet largely unheralded due to Simmons and Blakeney's arrivals. Sampson isn't a consistent 3-point threat yet but he can slash into the lane quite well and is inferior to no one on this roster athletically. He started strong, pouring in 19 points during LSU's exhibition. Best of all? He's a big-time talent who probably has at least two, if not three seasons in Baton Rouge to hone his pro stock. His length at 6-foot-4 will also play well defensively if teams try to size up on LSU.
Tim Quarterman's name lands all the way down here? Indeed, Quarterman made a huge leap in his sophomore season and there's even talk he's a potential NBA first-round pick in waiting. If he's improved his shooting from last season (his 2014-15 slash line was .427/.313/.718), he's an All-SEC caliber player right now. We all saw Quarterman harness his lanky frame and driving ability into a point-guard type leadership role last season. The junior may be asked to do less shooting and more creating this season, but that would be a huge win as long as he takes care of the ball and finds Simmons and Blakeney often in transition or knifes through defenses to finish at the rim.
Antonio Blakeney was a top-five recruit at his position and LSU may not need to play him more than 20 minutes per game or have him average above 15 points per night. That's what I'm getting at when I say this backcourt is loaded. He'll absolutely dazzle at times and even steal the spotlight from Simmons or Quarterman occasionally (though his first time doing so at LSU was not for great reasons). He's the piece that really put LSU's recruiting class over the top. Blakeney is the starter at SG right away, so expect him to be option No. 2 to Simmons. With an offensive skillset that could be NBA-ready by April, he's the stud combo guard LSU has needed for years.
Jalyn Patterson is option 1A to Hornsby beyond the arc, and that will be a welcome sight for those worried about teams doubling down on Simmons in the post. Patterson came on strong late last year, but he'll be need to be sharp right off the bat this season. At 6-foot nothing and without a true point guard's vision, Patterson may see more time when LSU goes small this year. He's not a defensive liability, per se, but LSU has too many rangy options at guard to rely on Patterson too much. Still, his presence is good for a shooting boost and some necessary stability if this team full of explosive talent starts moving a little too fast.
Josh Gray, oh what a wild card. We saw Good Gray for only a handful of games last season. Part of that was getting used to the D-I game and part of it was him pressing to fit a specific point-guard mentality. He wasn't an impact player but he also improved gradually and wasn't a net negative on the floor by March. Luckily, he won't be asked to do nearly as much this season. In fact, I'd be surprised if he averages more than 10 minutes, such is the glut of riches in LSU's backcourt. The Tigers' starting point guard much of last season may be more valuable for his depth than his talent.
Henry Shortess, I mean, someone has to earn the Charlie Thompson Fan Favorite annual scholarship award. (Kidding, he's a walk-on.) LATE BREAKING DEVELOPMENT: Shortess grew a beard in the offseason.
Ben Simmons is here. He is real, he is spectacular, and LSU fans are lucky as hell to have him. Just like Fournette in football or Alex Lange in Alex Box, the Tigers have a Best Player in The Country candidate on the hardwood. Just let that sink in. The only thing that will keep Ben Simmons' name off a jersey next to O'Neal, Maravich and Pettit in the PMAC rafters is time. He's a one-and-done deal — barring something truly peculiar — though that should be plenty enough to go down as an all timer in Baton Rouge. He's garnered LeBron and Magic Johnson comparisons, been projected as a future NBA Hall of Famer and earned a preseason All-American nod.
It just may not look like you'd expect. At 6-foot-9, he's an all-world athlete with a perfect basketball frame but still merely a solid shooter and a good presence at the rim. Where Simmons really separates from his peers is in his remarkable ball-handling and peerless vision as a point forward. The offense will flow through him, the stat sheet will be full. His teammates', not his own, scoring totals will be all the better for it. Don't be surprised to see him take the ball the length of the floor any given night. He's a stud, a borderline basketball prodigy and a triple-double waiting to happen. Most of all, he will cover a lot of flaws (coaching, streaky shooting, depth questions) and put LSU in the spotlight for a crucial recruiting cycle.
Craig Victor joins the frontline once the fall semester ends, and it's possible he's the linchpin of this team. Behind Simmons, the frontcourt is undersized, underwhelming and lacking depth. But Victor is a former four-star Louisiana recruit who chose Arizona only to come home eight games into his career. There's whispers around the program that he's more than capable of living up to his tremendous talent. Though he's a little lean for a power forward, the defensive prowess and rebounding ability will offset his relative lack of polish offensively. Still, he'll get his share of dunks and put-backs and hopefully fill the void Jordan Mickey left.
Aaron Epps is still learning the game. This was evident during his very limited minutes last season, but the early returns during the team's Australia tour and his preseason efforts are encouraging. The former high-school high jumper can leap out the gym. This makes him an intriguing option in transition and as the up man in a full-court press, which Johnny Jones is willing to employ with a deep roster. Epps need not be more than an above-average defender and hustle player who spells Simmons and Victor with a handful of quality minutes.
Brian Bridgewater, you should have been a tight end. Okay, that seems like a diss but he played the position in high school and, at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds with nice agility, he has the measurables to help out Les Miles and company. However, his skills and frame prove less valuable for the hardwood version of the Tigers. He's too slow to play small forwards on the wing and too small to offset a power forward down low. He does play extremely hard and will go to bat for you on the glass. That alone makes him a gritty balance to the talent on this team. Like Epps, he's potentially valuable depth, only LSU will be in trouble if he's seeing the floor often.
Brandon Eddlestone, see: Henry Shortess, except as a forward.
Elbert Robinson III, welcome to the big show. Much was expected of the 7-footer last season. He was just too slow, too out of shape and too clumsy to justify much playing time. Jones foolishly started him until January, and he barely played once SEC play began. Throw all of that out the window. Of course, it's pointless to read heavily into exhibition results, but the slimmed-down and confident version of Robinson on display last week is a promising sign. While it's not realistic to expect a Tim Quarterman-sized surge from freshman to sophomore season, the parallels in potential are similar. LSU doesn't need a dominant center who commands the ball on the block. The Tigers do need a consistent defender, height on the boards and a center who can take some pressure off Simmons. If Robinson can provide that, LSU's prospects look a lot brighter.
Darcy Malone, you're no longer the most popular Aussie on campus. Snapchat game aside (well, Simmons might even have him there), Malone is still an enigma. The junior has progressed, if slightly, in his first two seasons. His outside shot is decent for a 7-footer but his slender frame and slow footwork has held him back. He's not a particularly viable post player despite his height. I don't expect that to change significantly. With more talent around him and even less responsibility on his shoulders, Malone has a chance to be a modest contributor, something LSU would gladly take.
Overall, this roster is deep enough to withstand some poor shooting nights, some injuries and even foul trouble. However, there's enough question marks in the frontcourt to worry about how LSU will matchup with the Kentuckys and Vanderbilts of the SEC. And speaking of matchups...
I'll be blunt here: LSU's non-conference schedule is underwhelming and not befitting of a preseason top-25 team with Sweet 16 aspirations. Granted, Marquette and Arizona State OR North Carolina State in the Legends Classic over Thanksgiving in the Barclays Center will be nice matchups, and Oklahoma in January us a big one. But there's not a lot of meat on this bone. Wake Forest should be, at best, an NIT team while a road trip to an improved Houston team under Kelvin Sampson is slightly underrated.
Other than that? LSU's remaining OOC games include: McNeese St., Kennesaw St., South Alabama, Charleston, North Florida, Gardner-Webb, Oral Roberts and American. That doesn't cut it. This isn't like football, where schedules are made years in advance and the quality of competition can change wildly over that time. Johnny Jones and the LSU staff knew they had a talent like Ben Simmons to show off, and he may not face a ranked team until conference play. The Oklahoma game is part of the Big 12-SEC challenge, so it'll happen weeks into the league slate and it was set up by ESPN. That matchup is the only thing keeping this non-conference slate from being an F in my book.
Now the SEC slate? Don't laugh, but it's going to be a bear to handle. This isn't the ACC or the Big 10 and the league may not even overtake the Big 12 or Pac 12. It's still much improved. Vandy and Texas A&M are legit NCAA teams. LSU plays them a total of three times, twice on the road. Trips to Arkansas and Florida will be tricky, despite roster and coaching turnover. Visits to South Carolina and Auburn will be land mines. The home slate includes A&M, Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss, all teams that are, at minimum, likely bubble squads.
Of course, there's a home-and-home with Kentucky and that may decide the league championship. While I believe UK is still the class of the league, the gap is narrow this season. The Cats have a trio of five star recruits coming in along with returners Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee. Somehow, that means they're vulnerable. With the Kentucky game marking LSU's SEC home opener, the tone for league play will be set immediately.
This has been a decidedly optimistic view of the season so far, but there's still an elephant in the room. Head coach Johnny Jones has done a whole lot of good for this program. The former Tiger clearly embraces the job and all its challenges, reeling in some absolute stud recruits for his alma mater. He's improved the team each season, slowly nudged fan interest and brought LSU back to the NCAA Tournament after a six-year drought. So what's with the negativity?
Well, my issues with Jones were well chronicled last season, and I don't think they'll go away entirely this year. LSU lost to seven 100+ RPI teams last season, routinely showed up lacking energy against inferior teams and rarely got the most out of a Jarell Martin-Jordan Mickey frontcourt.
There will probably still be a few games this season when the Tigers don't show up. That happens in college sports. Teams will give Ben Simmons their best shot, especially if he's as good as advertised. The SEC is considerably tougher in 2016. There will be a limited amount of playing time to divvy up among a lot of talented players, particularly in the backcourt. These are all veritable challenges and ones any coach could struggle to handle.
That doesn't mean I will always give Jones a pass for them nor do I expect LSU to look like a well-oiled machine right away, given Hornsby and Victor are out until Christmas. But I do expect this team to make a leap into the national discussion and into SEC title contention. In other words, I want the talent on this team to actually translate into consistency, not just potential. That's been a struggle the last two seasons under Jones, but even he hasn't had talent like this to work with. Martin and Mickey were nice, and so was Johnny O'Bryant III for that matter. Simmons and Blakeney are a step up in class. Combined with newfound talented depth, that may be enough to hide some of those flaws that has brought Jones a fair level of criticism.
- 24-6 (13-5 SEC) SEC Tournament Finalist, NCAA Tournament No. 5 seed, Sweet 16 berth
Despite my doubts about Jones' ability to maximize talent, I still can't help but see a huge season for this team, one that will rival the 2000 and 2006 teams for achievement and quality. There'll be an adjustment period playing undermanned sans Hornsby and Victor, so I think LSU is good for a loss in that Legends Classic event in Brooklyn. They'll be tested against Houston and Gardner Webb but enter SEC play at 11-1 but looking shaky. Many, including myself, will lament losing Jordan Mickey.
Then, LSU figures it out. The Tigers have five games combined against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, three of them on the road. I think the Tigers go 2-3 in those games (one win vs. Kentucky) but beat Oklahoma and largely avoid the debilitating conference losses that damaged LSU's NCAA seeding last March. Ben Simmons is the SEC Player of the Year, an All-American and a Naismith finalist.
The Tigers make an SEC Tournament final for the first time since 1993 but fall to Kentucky after a hard-fought rubber match. LSU makes the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed and narrowly avoids a 5-12 first-round upset before marching to the Sweet 16 with a Round of 32 romp. The Tigers' season ends with a heartbreaking loss to a No. 1 seed.
Simmons and Quarterman go pro but Blakeney stays to prove he can be a primary offensive option to ensure lottery pick status. Basketball doesn't replace by baseball in LSU fans' hearts by any means, but the program stays on a notable uptick and finally earns some lasting goodwill.
That would be enough to call the season a success.