The fateful day of Johnny’s demise has finally arrived, and just in time to get rammed to the side by a baseball gamethread. Nonetheless, we need to figure out who’ll be leading what’s left of our ragtag group of lovable misfits come November. But first, don’t let a 10-21 season distract you from the real reasons Johnny was fired.
The first four years
In his first year in charge of the Tigers, LSU went 19-12 (9-9 in SEC), an immediate improvement from Trent Johnson’s last year that saw an 18-15 (7-9) record, albeit with an NIT Tournament appearance. The big sell for Jones’ first season wasn’t NCAA Tournament expectations, but simply a more entertaining product on the court.
And more entertaining they were. LSU beat the smaller schools they were expected to beat, and always competed as a team with a fighting chance against everyone else. Not to mention the quicker pace and fastbreak-influenced style of play Jones implemented really stood out in comparison to Johnson’s more defensive approach to the game.
The Tigers slightly improved the next season, but would still finish .500 in conference play. While they went 13-3 in the PMAC, picking up victories on the road continued to be a struggle. It was still incredibly fun to watch, especially amid the excitement of the freshman trio of Tim Quarterman, Jarrell Martin, and Jordan Mickey, and Johnny O’Bryant III returning for his junior season. The Tigers looked like a legitimately decent basketball team, and had some really memorable moments, specifically taking down #11 Kentucky during a “snow storm”. The pieces looked to be there, and they were exciting. We had hope, but something never felt quite right.
The Tigers would never put together a three game winning streak in conference, lost both overtime games in which they participated, and continued to be out-smarted rather than out-talented. It seemed every time the Tigers were down and had the ball in the last dozen or so seconds, there was no apparent plan or play call specialty other than “let Hickey or Stringer make a play.” That’s not smart basketball, and most fans ignored this issue because it was still much better than Trent Johnson’s Tigers.
2014-15 saw the departure of Anthony Hickey, Andre Stringer, Johnny O’Bryant III, and Shavon Coleman, all very significant contributors to the successes of the prior season. Despite losing such a solid core group, this season would arguably prove to be Jones’ best at LSU, finishing 22-11 (11-7) and earning LSU’s first invitation to the NCAA Tournament since 2008-09. Late game play seemingly improved, especially in the season finale that saw Keith Hornsby bury a last second three to win in Fayetteville, but the last two games of the season brought the fan base to the apprehensive agreement that maybe Jones isn’t quite the coach to bring us back to a Final Four. Another overtime loss against Auburn was the Tigers’ lone SEC Tournament game, a last second one point heartbreak against NC State was their lone NCAA Tournament game. The Tigers couldn’t figure out how to be clutch when it mattered the most, but there was hope for the following season.
Fans were calling for Johnny Jones’ head after his fourth season, another winning year at 19-14 (11-7). The Tigers may have lost Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey, but they reloaded with five star guard Antonio Blakeney, four star guard Brandon Sampson, and the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Ben Simmons. Put players of that on-paper caliber on any team in Division 1 basketball and we’re talking a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Put them on a team who went to the Tournament the year before? It’s hard to have low expectations.
The defensive issues we’ve seen throughout this season were apparent early on. Giving up 108 to North Florida, losing in overtime to Houston 105-98, and losing to an eventual 11-20 (2-16) Wake Forest was not the way the season was supposed to begin. But again, LSU topped #9 Kentucky. Pummeled them, actually, with a score of 85-67, so the hope was back, there was plenty of time to get it together, the beginning of the season was forgotten. You already know how this one ends up. Blown out 71-38 by Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, no NCAA invitation, Simmons goes pro, end of story.
Some fans, myself included, chalked up the stunning result to the 2015-16 season to bad chemistry, and anticipated a decent, winning season without the Simmons and Quarterman drama. Considering the purpose of this article, that was not the case at all.
What the hell happened???
How exactly did four winning seasons and a 40-32 conference record turn into this disaster of a 10-21 (2-16) final product? This goes a bit beyond poor coaching; that’s been present all four years, yet the Tigers never finished worse than .500 in conference. Did any ounce of good luck desert LSU? Are the players that bad? Are the coaches that bad?
Conference play began with devastating news: forward Craig Victor’s dismissal from the program. Victor and Ben Simmons held down the paint in the previous season, frankly because guys like Darcy Malone, Brian Bridgewater, and Elbert Robinson III just aren’t even with the level of forward talent a winning team would need in the SEC. Mock the conference and it’s lack of basketball aptitude all you want, it’s full of big men who need to be guarded by bigger men. Once Victor was dismissed from the team, LSU was left with new forward Duop Reath, the aforementioned Bridgewater and Robinson III, an undersized Aaron Epps, freshman Wayde Sims, and walk on turned scholarship player Brandon Eddlestone.
From that moment on, the defense visibly struggled to put together any form of effective communication or paint presence. At every press conference following a home loss, players would mention needing to put a larger focus on talking and communicating on defense during practice. Every following result would prove otherwise. The conference opener against Vanderbilt was LSU’s first without Craig Victor, a 96-89 loss. The Tigers would fail to hold an opponent under 75 points for the rest of the season, giving up 90+ points on eight occasions. This included a 106-71 loss to Florida, officially LSU’s worst conference loss in the PMAC ever.
Poor defense can’t be completely blamed on your post players. Granted, that’s where the blame begins, but it goes a bit deeper than bad match ups in the paint. LSU consistently turned the ball over over a dozen times every single game, and finished second worst in the conference in that category. More turnovers lead to more scoring opportunities for the other team, especially fastbreak opportunities. Poor defense, still, goes deeper than undersized post players and sloppy offense, and it brings us to the reason of why we’re here today: bad coaching.
Coaching isn’t limited to recruiting, play-calling, and a general style philosophy. Motivation goes a long way, especially in college sports where the seasons are much shorter than their professional counterparts. Once the Tigers lost Victor, got down on themselves and got trounced a few times, it would take a great kick in the ass to turn the team around to a squad to be proud of, a kick they never received, or were never willing to receive. After the shellacking by Florida, watching the team was a chore, and you got the feeling that no one, including the players, really wanted to be there. They didn’t think they had a chance to turn it around, therefore they knew they didn’t have a chance. It was a truly disheartening experience to watch both the team and the fans quit after all the fun they had in the previous four seasons. That Snow Dome game seems so far away now.
As Athletic Director Joe Alleva put it, “Much of the process of singling out and interviewing candidates will likely have to wait for the college basketball season to conclude. I ask for your patience as we move forward in this process.”
So while I’m sure there are some names in mind for Alleva & Friends, on the surface it seems like it’s really anyone’s guess as to who will be in charge of the 2017-18 squad. We’ve got a lot of time on our hands until then, so let’s watch baseball and make some wild guesses in the meantime!
Reasonable, with LSU connections:
Eric Musselman, Head Coach of Nevada
Connection: Former LSU assistant for 2014-15, their last NCAA appearance.
Why you should want him: Led Nevada to a CBI Championship, 24-14 (10-8) record in his first year. He’s currently in his second year with the Wolf Pack in which they are 25-6 (14-4) and Mountain West Regular Season Champions.
Why you might not want him: While his current successes at Nevada cannot be ignored, this is literally his second season as a college head coach. He coached three seasons in the NBA for the Warriors and Kings for a combined 108-138, but that’s mostly irrelevant.
Bryce Drew, Head Coach of Vanderbilt
Connection: Born in Baton Rouge, son of former LSU assistant (under Dale Brown) Homer Drew.
Why you should want him: This is his first season as the head coach of Vanderbilt, leading them to an 18-14 (10-8) record. Vandy bounced back from a four game skid and an 8-10 record to knock off Florida earlier this season and win ten of their last fourteen contests. He was the head coach of Valparaiso for five seasons before being hired away to Vanderbilt, boasting a combined record of 124-49 (65-19 Horizon), two NIT appearances, four Horizon regular season championships, two Horizon Tournament championships, and two NCAA Tournament appearances. Alleva mentioned wanting a “proven winner” and Drew, while young, really fits that bill.
Why it probably won’t happen: It’d be a long shot for Drew to abandon Vanderbilt after only one season to essentially make a lateral move. That’d require opening up the checkbook a good bit, and while I believe he’d be worth the price, I’m not so sure Alleva would agree.
Kermit Davis, Head Coach of Middle Tennessee State
Connection: Former LSU assistant under John Brady from 1997-2002.
Why you should want him: As I type this, Middle Tennessee just beat UTEP to improve to 29-4 (17-1 CUSA) and will play in their conference tournament final. This is Davis’ fifteenth season with the Blue Raiders, and he’s only once finished below .500. In the last six seasons (including this one), the Blue Raiders have four regular season conference championships, a CUSA Tournament championship (and working on a second), and two NCAA Tournament appearances. Only once in the last six years have the Blue Raiders failed to win 24 games in a season. 2017 CUSA Coach of the year. This is a proven winner.
Why it might not happen: Something tells me it might be a little difficult to pry someone from a healthy program they’ve been in charge of for a decade and a half. He’s finally got some consistent success with the Blue Raiders, so it might take more than a smile and a challenge to get him down here.
Other, less reasonable options:
Richard Pitino, Head Coach of Minnesota
Why you should want him: Pitino legacy aside, Richard’s built himself a healthy shelf of accomplishments in a very short period of time. The 34 year old head coach led his Golden Gophers to an NIT Championship in his first year and a 24-8 (11-7 B1G) record this season, also being awarded the title of Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Why it might not happen: A conference coach of the year award is nothing to turn your nose at, and LSU definitely won’t be the only program looking for a new head coach this offseason. Considering his current salary of $1.6 million and his high profile name, young Pitino might start a pissing contest Alleva might want to forego.
Steve Prohm, Head Coach of Iowa State
Why you should want him: After five seasons serving as Billy Kennedy’s assistant, Prohm took over the Murray State job for four seasons, winning two regular season conference titles, one OVC Tournament title, and advancing to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament in 2011-12, when the Racers finished 31-2 (15-1). In his first season with Iowa State, he led the Cyclones to a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and has a combined record at ISU of 43-22 (22-14 Big XII), an impressive feat for a team in the Big XII not named Kansas.
Why it might not happen: Again, he’s got a good thing going on here with Iowa State. He already took the Cyclones to the Tournament and probably will again this season. Granted he was an assistant coach at Centenary, Southeastern, and Tulane from 1998-2006, moving to Baton Rouge to help our Tigers would be an even taller task than competing in the Big XII. Realistically, this job might be beneath him at this point.
Tom Crean, Head Coach of Indiana
This is just fan service at this point. Ugh.
Why you should want him: Simply put, he fits Alleva’s requirement of proven winner. He’s currently serving his ninth year as head coach of the Hoosiers, and he’s taken Indiana to the NCAA Tournament on four occasions, most recently winning the Big Ten regular season championship and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. He’s an established power, he’s a big name, he’s certainly a coach who could take LSU Basketball back to winning ways.
Why it might not happen: Read that last sentence. That doesn’t come cheap, and he’d certainly be the most expensive option of all the guys I’ve mentioned so far. Plus, some rumors are currently tying him to the Mizzou opening. That being said, he would be totally worth it. He’s a phenomenal recruiter, and coaches with an intense, football-like style that would definitely fit the ridiculous culture of LSU Athletics. Come to think of it, if Ed Orgeron coached basketball...
I really do hate this for Johnny Jones. It would’ve been really great to have a former player step in and make something special for his LSU community, it just didn’t work out. We’ve got about a month between now and the end of the college basketball season, and it’ll be even longer before we officially know who we’ll mercilessly pile our hopes on. These are only six names among literally hundreds of possibilities, so continue to discuss who could bring our Tigers back to the NCAA Tournament in the comments below...because frankly March Madness isn’t as fun as it could be without LSU.