The LSU Men's Basketball team kicked off their 2015-2016 season last week with a 5 game exhibition trip around beautiful Australia. The trip was a great success on all accounts, earning a 3-2 overall record with four strong showings in games 1-4. Game 5 was a blowout loss, but thats not surprising, or discouraging, given that the team was playing against seasoned veterans and grown men. The team showed a willingness to play together, a necessity to compete with NBL teams that play a slow, physical style of basketball.
- Opponent: Newcastle Allstars
- W: 89-75
Ben Simmons was the star, playing 37 minutes (7-17 FG, 8-11 FT, 22 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists to 2 turnovers, 3 blocks and 2 steals) and showing why he was the unquestioned number one recruit in the nation last year. Antonio Blakeney also affirmed his scouting report, a great ability to score in different ways on the way to a nice opening game stat line (6-10 FG, 1-4 3pt, 3-3 FT, 16 points, 5 rebounds, but only 1 assist to 3 turnovers.) Keith Hornsby had his strongest showing of the trip, scoring 17 points on 3-5 from 3pt. The team shared the ball better than the 13 total assists indicate, which helped them cruise to a win.
- Opponent: Sydney Kings
- L: 95-97
Coach Jones showed us a smaller line-up, electing to play more shooters to allow the Tigers to play up-tempo. Simmons went off with 26 points, but also showed his versatility and ability to distribute with plays like these.
A physical game (as all are in the NBL, Australia's premier pro league), with the bigs in foul trouble throughout. LSU lost the game on a frustrating series of possessions at the end: controversial goaltending call, borderline Quarterman push-off, and the Kings scoring a go ahead basket with 3.7 left. The goaltending call, seemingly legal by FIBA rules (where players can swat the ball off the rim if it is not directly over the cylinder) left LSU players and coaches confused, though they refused to use it as an excuse or comment on it after the game. Blakeney's potential game winning three rimmed out, a fitting end to what was a coin toss from start to finish. Brandon Sampson scored 11 of 14 points in second half, but it wasn't enough to push the Tigers over the top.
- Opponent: Queensland All-Stars
- W 91-88
Tim Quarterman led team with 20-11-5, steadying the team in absence of senior PG Josh Gray (missed the trip due a compliance issue yet to be resolved, but not expected to cause him to miss a major portion of the season.) Blakeney also had another strong showing with 22 points and 7 rebounds in 29 minutes on the floor. While he isn't best in a democratic styled offense, Blakeney showed flashes of potential that have pro scouts buzzing about him as a potential lottery pick.
Another close game, except this time the team executed down the stretch, and Coach Jones remarked he was proud they held the lead against a veteran professional team. Simmons last second-tip won a game in which he had another strong overall performance, rallying from 10 turnovers with 8 takeaways of his own. Averaging 5.8 stocks (steals+blocks) a game, Simmons truly fits the hype of the next can't miss prospect as he grades out to have A+ potential on both ends of the floor.
It's a great learning experience for the team to bounce back after loss in similar situation previous game, especially given recently announced home and home series against NCAA heavyweights Kentucky (loaded again) and Florida (looking to bounce back under new head coach Mike White.) After the game, guard Keith Hornsby said: "It forces us to mature at a rate we probably weren't expecting. These teams with experienced guys put us to a test physically and mentally. Having said that, I am very happy with how we buckled down and executed and got the win."
- Opponent: Melbourne United
- W 97-89
Another strong start to finish performance from the team against a Melbourne United team that sat several (and some of their best) players. Jones experimented more with his rotations this game, lessening Simmons workload with the starters and saw little dip in the teams efficiency. Despite playing a trip-low 32 minutes, Simmons excited the fans during his time on the floor with several dunks and steals.
Forward Aaron Epps got his first real action of the trip (20 minutes, 13-9), and freshman guard Brandon Sampson had his best showing in Australia (15-4-3.) Sampson has tremendous talent, but seems to thrive with the ball in his hands, which isn't likely to happen on a regular basis given the bevy of talents the team has at guard (and that's before factoring Simmons, who acts as a Point-Forward.)
- Opponent: Melbourne United
- L 64-82
Blow out, LSU didn't move the ball well and shot even worse, an abysmal 29.3% from the floor. It may not the worst way to end the trip where they were extremely competitive and successful in every game against pro teams. A good humbling can be the perfect reality check to refocus and fuel the team going into the season. Coach Jones seemed extremely positive after the loss, though, stating:
"Anytime you put a group of guys together like that for the period of time that we did and they are getting along and bonding, I think it's been great for our team," Coach Jones said in summing up the trip. "I think we have been able to grow. It was great for us having 10 practices prior to our arrival (in Australia). Getting here I thought we did some good things throughout. We have five games. This was probably our least showing as far as execution is concerned, but I thought over the first four games we showed signs of improvement and getting better. We played a very experienced team (Saturday). We played a lot games in a short amount of days and when you play a team like this, it makes it difficult. We were exposed, but I'm really pleased with the effort of the guys during the time we were here and there are certainly some things that we look forward to working on when we get home."
Simmons, Quarterman, and Darcy Malone started all five games on the trip, with Blakeney and Hornsby starting four a piece and Brandon Sampson starting two. Malone played big minutes game one (24) but petered off and then steadily declined from there (16,18,9,7), leaving his role in the rotation a bit of a question. Simmons, Quarterman, and Blakeney should be locks to start, and Sampson should have an opportunity to play himself into a fourth spot. It will be interesting to see what Jones will do at 5 going forward, and whether it's Malone or Epps, transfer Craig Victor should have an opportunity to assert himself their once becomes eligible to play in games in December.
Simmons can improve from the charity stripe, but other than that, pretty much proved his prodigy status. He will continue to do stuff like this and makes LSU a must watch team throughout the season.
<iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/137092752" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href="https://vimeo.com/137092752">Ben Simmons and LSU Highlight Reel</a> from <a href="https://vimeo.com/user38822158">Basketball Victoria</a> on <a href="https://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p>
Blakeney's strengths and weaknesses are largely as advertised as well, but he showed flashes of an elite ability to get to and score at the hoop. He has legit NBA range, and an above average body to say the least (truly a freak athlete.)
Their ability to succeed against an improved schedule will depend on their willingness to share the ball and their commitment to the defensive end of the floor, with the latter of the two seeming like the bigger question coming off of the trip. That being said, the Tigers will be a team to keep their eye on this season for even casual hoop fans, with the worst case scenario being a steady stream of highlights from Simmons like this:
Official practices start in October and then two more exhibition games in early November (Southwest Baptist and McNeese St.) before debuting in Prime time of ESPN's Tip Off marathon Monday November 16th at 8PM on ESPNU. The Tigers will face off against Kennessaw State to kick off a four game Legends Classic slate, with two in Baton Rouge at the PMAC before heading to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for another couple of games.