Woes for LSU basketball weren’t limited just for the men for the 2015-2016 season. Nikki Fargas had what was her worst team since arriving in Baton Rouge in 2011. For a team which set some program worsts last season, things appear to be on the upswing entering the 2016-2017 season.
Entering last season LSU was coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance but was picked to finish ninth in the conference. The results were far worse. Early season injuries to Raigyne Moncrief, the top returning player, and Ayanna Mitchell, the top true freshman, effectively crushed what was an already thin roster. Additional injuries forced softball’s Connie Quinn to put on a basketball jersey for a brief period before the softball season. LSU ended the season with a 10-21 record, the worst total in over 20 years, and 12th in the conference.
There were two high points last season. The first was defeating #24 Tennessee for what was without a doubt the biggest and best win of the season. The second was the play of Alexis Hyder. After a slow start, the North Texas transfer quickly became a presence in the paint leading the Tigers in scoring and rebounding.
The good news this year is that depth shouldn’t be an issue. Along with Hyder, Jenna Deemer and Rina Hill return. Hill led the team in assists last season with 66 and Deemer averaged a respectable 9.5 PPG. Throw in Shanice Norton and Jasmine Rhodes and the Tigers return six players who played 20 or more games and averaged north of 24 minutes per game.
Even with that group, the returns of Moncrief and Mitchell are huge. Moncrief, who was a preseason All-SEC pick last season, averaged 10.3 points in the three games she played. Mitchell, will bring size and a defensive presence to the front court.
NC State transfer Chloe Jackson is now eligible after sitting out last season. She logged just four games with the Wolfpack but was the 19th ranked guard in her 2014 recruiting class. LSU’s other transfer, Tatum Neubert, suffered a knee injury and won’t be available till mid-season. She averaged 3.5 points over 23 games last season with Oregon.
The headliner of the 2016 class is arguably guard Jaeyln Richard-Harris. Although she is undersized at 5-4, she has been cited for exceptional speed and basketball IQ. Reports on freshman forwards Yasmine Bidikuindila and Faustine Aifuwa suggests LSU has two bigs with some athleticism and scoring upside to work with.
LSU won’t be doing a ton of traveling in the OOC portion of the schedule with 8 of 13 games at home. The biggest game of that stretch is UConn coming down to Baton Rouge the Sunday before Thanksgiving in which the Tigers will need a miracle to even keep the game close. Other potentially tough games could include Tulane, Alabama State and NC State.
The conference schedule for the Tigers starts tough but potentially sets up for some easier opponents in the later half of the season. LSU’s toughest stretch during SEC play is in mid-January where the Tigers host South Carolina and Kentucky, before a road game against Texas A&M. The final month of the season has the Tigers playing Bama, Auburn, and Vanderbilt (twice) three of the four teams picked to finish below the Tigers in the conference along with Georgia who was tied for ninth in the preseason SEC poll with LSU.
There should be a sense of optimism for the 2016-2017 team. If for no other reason than it would be hard to top last year’s struggles. If there was an underlying theme for last year it was a lack of depth and it seems that issue was not only resolved but strengthened as well with Fargas suggesting 10 players could see “quality minutes.” The combination of Moncrief, Hyder, Deemer should provide a solid group of scorers, along with Jackson who Fargas praised for her scoring acumen. Hyder, Mitchell and one of the freshman forwards should provide depth in the front court.
How good this team is should be pretty evident by the time conference play rolls around. Best case scenario, Hyder, Mitchell and Moncrief form the backbone while Deemer, Hill and/or one of the newcomers give the Tigers a well rounded team that wins the majority of its out of conference slate, secures an upset or two in conference play and at least one win in the conference tournament, potentially putting the Tigers as a bubble team. On the flip side, if Moncrief and Mitchell aren’t healthy, or are not able to play at a high level, the Tigers will probably spend a bulk of the year trying to stay at .500.
All things considered, this team should be pretty good. Polling ninth is understandable but given Fargas’ record at LSU, there is reason to believe this team won’t be trending down for long. This team is healthy and has several good pieces. Ultimately, this Tiger team should finish with a winning record and in the top-half of the conference.