When you have a player on your team who ultimately ends up being the top pick in the NBA draft, it’s understandable that expectations will be high. Add to that the hype machine telling you that the previous nine teams who had that player made the NCAA tournament, with five reaching at least the Elite Eight, you’d think going 19-14 and missing out on the madness would make you say your team had a down year, but that’s not the case for LSU’s Johnny Jones. He chooses to focus on the positives from last season like going 8-1 at home and finishing third overall in the SEC. The coach’s positive attitude will be needed as the Tigers look to replace Ben Simmons and the 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game he took with him to the Philadelphia 76ers.
As LSU moves on from the Simmons Era (if you can call one season an era) they hope to replace what he brought to the floor with team chemistry and a balanced lineup capable of attacking teams in multiple ways. It all starts with sophomore shooting guard Antonio Blakeney. After averaging 12.6 points per game last season, he made the All-SEC Freshman team and he comes into the season with several accolades including being named to the All-SEC Second Team, Dick Vitale’s All Rolls Royce Team and is on the watch list for the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award.
In the front court, LSU will have the benefit of a full year of the services of forward Craig Victor. After transferring from Arizona, NCAA rules required him to sit for 11 months before finally joining his fellow Tigers on the floor. By then, the team had gotten off to a 4-4 start and were too far into a season of mediocrity to turn it around. After the season, Jones said Victor could’ve been a difference maker in three of the Tigers first four losses and is excited to have him for a full campaign.
The one-two punch of Blakeney and Victor won’t have to do it alone. Guard Brandon Sampson appears ready to put an inconsistent freshman season behind him and could be one of the Tigers best perimeter shooters this year. Finally, one place LSU appears to be loaded is at point guard.
As the season opener nears, the competition between freshman Skyler Mays and junior Jalyn Patterson rages on. At 6-4, Mays (the Tigers only four-start recruit) has the size to play shooting guard, but he is used to playing the point. Patterson, on the other hand at 6-1, is the size of a point guard, but has traditionally played the two. While Jones hasn’t named a starter, he envisions a three-guard lineup that will allow both of them to be on the floor at the same time, with Mays running the offense and Patterson helping to spread the defense by knocking down outside jumpers.
There are some who like LSU’s chances to do a few things in the SEC, but you’re more likely this season to find the inverse. Those doubters think LSU could be in a downward spiral for years to come, suffering from the possible recruiting ramifications of Simmons leaving after just one season. But Jones, who believes his team’s overall SEC finish last season was worthy of an at-large NCAA tournament bid, and ended up declining the NIT bid they were offered, is confident that the team can build on the positives from last season and return to postseason play.