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SEC Hoops Preview Series: LSU

To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: LSU, poised to push for their first NCAA bid since 2009.

Kevin C. Cox

We're counting down the days to basketball season, and to get everyone up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of projected finish, so as this is the eleventh of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 4th in the conference.

LSU Tigers 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

The up-and-down John Brady era ended in 2008 with a disappointing 13-18 finish, then Trent Johnson arrived from Stanford and promptly went 27-8.  But that represented the high-water mark of the Johnson era; Johnson's next two teams struggled, and though he went 18-15 in 2012, it was pretty clear that Johnson was leaving one step ahead of the ax when he took the TCU job -- a lateral move at best.

Johnny Jones came over from North Texas, but he played and coached at LSU under Dale Brown and was about as good a fit for this job as you could imagine.  While Jones hasn't yet made the NCAA Tournament at LSU, he's improved the play on the floor and also has scored some big wins on the recruiting trail.  The Tigers only went from 19 to 20 wins between 2013 and 2014, but that misses a fairly significant improvement: at least part of that reflects an upgraded non-conference schedule, and LSU went from a +1.8 ppg scoring margin in Jones' first year to +3.4 ppg in his second year.

But the improvement from year one to year two is only part of the reason for excitement.  While three starters are gone, LSU started two freshmen last year; both return this year and both are viewed as legitimate NBA prospects.  The Tigers also bring in another talented freshman big man and a pair of talented transfers.  There are a lot of unknowns here, but there's also the potential for LSU to have a very good basketball team in 2015.  They're even expecting this to be the year that LSU breaks a tournament drought going back to 2009, Trent Johnson's first season in Baton Rouge.

Even without getting the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament in his first two years, Jones got a raise and a contract extension recently which keeps him under contract until 2019 and pays him $1.5 million a year.  LSU brass clearly has faith in Jones, and this should be the year that faith is rewarded.

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com

Losses
  • Johnny O'Bryant (30.0 mpg, 15.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg); declared for NBA Draft
  • Andre Stringer (25.7 mpg, 11.8 ppg, 2.6 apg); graduated
  • Shavon Coleman (25.3 mpg, 9.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg); graduated
  • Anthony Hickey (31.4 mpg, 8.4 ppg, 3.7 apg); transfer/Oklahoma State)
  • Malik Morgan (15.5 mpg, 4.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg); transfer/Tulane
  • Shane Hammink (5.7 mpg, 1.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg); transfer/Valparaiso
Starting Five
  • PG Josh Gray (6'1", 183 Jr., Lake Charles, LA); #3 JC PG and #17 overall JC
  • SG Keith Hornsby (6'4", 210 Jr., Williamsburg, VA); transfer/UNC Asheville
  • SF Jarell Martin (6'10", 235 Soph., Baton Rouge, LA)
  • PF Jordan Mickey (6'8", 235 Soph., Arlington, TX)
  • C Elbert Robinson (7'1", 270 Fr., Garland, TX); #6 C and #59 overall
Top Reserves
  • G Jalyn Patterson (6'0", 175 Fr., Alpharetta, GA); #1 CG and #251 overall
  • F Brian Bridgewater (6'4", 265 Soph., Baton Rouge, LA); #38 SF and #195 overall (2013)
  • F John Odo (6'10", 245 Sr., Lagos, Nigeria)
  • G Tim Quarterman (6'6", 187 Soph., Savannah, GA)
Bench
  • F Aaron Epps (6'9", 208 Fr., Ball, LA); #39 C and #363 overall
  • C Darcy Malone (7'0", 245 Soph., Canberra, Australia)

While normally, you wouldn't be expecting improvement from a team that's returning just 38 percent of its minutes (and particularly when some of the departed players were pretty important to the team), LSU's projection has a lot more to do with the incoming talent and exactly who is returning to the team.

Jarell Martin was the big fish that Jones landed in his first year, a five-star recruit whom Jones managed to convince to stay home, but it was Jordan Mickey who wound up being the breakout star in the freshman class.  Mickey was "just" a four-star recruit, but he had an immediate impact upon arriving at LSU, leading the SEC with 3.1 blocks per game and also averaging 12.7 ppg and 7.9 rpg, the latter number being fourth in the conference.

What's more, there's a decent chance that Mickey could be around for a while.  This is kind of an ideal situation for a coach like Jones, a player who is very good at the college level, but who, because of his size, isn't going to draw as much attention from NBA scouts as you'd think.  At 6'8" and 235, Mickey's best skill is blocking shots and he has no perimeter game to speak of (he attempted five three-pointers all season and missed all of them); that's the skill set of an NBA four or maybe even a five, but with a size that's better suited for an NBA three.  (That's not to say that Mickey won't leave early for the draft or be a productive NBA player, but I doubt he'd get selected in the lottery.  If he were 6'10" he would have been a lottery pick last year.)

Martin, on the other hand, does have ideal size for the NBA at 6'10" and 235.  But he didn't have the immediate impact that LSU fans were expecting last year, in part due to an injury early in the season and also (possibly related) struggling to adjust to the college game.  But the potential is fairly obvious, as a guy who's 6'10" and can stretch the defense as well as rebound and score down low.  Last year he averaged 10.3 ppg and 4.6 rpg, but both of those numbers could very easily go up after a year in college.

Replacing Johnny O'Bryant on the low block will be freshman Elbert Robinson.  Robinson arrived on LSU's campus at 310 pounds, but has since slimmed down to about 270.  I shouldn't have to explain the implications of 7'1", 270 to you.  The lost weight and increased stamina should improve Robinson's ability to get up and down the floor and play extended minutes, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the SEC -- because even at 7'1", 270 he's going to be a load on the low block.  And having Martin and Mickey alongside him in the frontcourt should mean that there's no pressure on Robinson to be a major contributor, but if he does become one, this LSU frontcourt is going to be truly scary.

LSU's backcourt should consist of Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby.  Gray averaged an insane 33.8 ppg at Odessa College last year, but LSU won't be counting on him to be a big-time scorer; instead, Jones will want Gray to be more of a distributor.  That shouldn't be a big problem, though, as Gray averaged 5.9 apg at the JC level even while scoring that much and has the ability to create off the dribble.

Hornsby (who, it's obligatory to point out, is the son of Grammy Award winner Bruce Hornsby) averaged 15.0 ppg at UNC-Asheville two years ago, but like Gray won't be asked to score as much here.  Instead, Hornsby's job will be to be the third or fourth option on offense and hit enough threes to prevent defenses from collapsing in the paint.  While he shot 37.9 percent from three as a sophomore at Asheville, his 92.5 percent from the line indicates that he could be an elite shooter now that he's on a team on which he won't be the guy defenses are gearing their gameplan around.

If there's a weakness on this team, it's the bench.  Losing four players who still had eligibility remaining does have its consequences, and that consequence is that this team doesn't have a lot of reserves who have much Division 1 experience.  It's particularly going to be a problem in the frontcourt: while Robinson is improved, if he's in foul trouble or his stamina is an issue LSU doesn't really have any great options behind him.  Mickey can play as an undersized five if necessary, but Jones would really prefer if either 6'10" Nigerian John Odo or 7'0" Australian Darcy Malone became a viable backup inside.  The two combined to average 9 minutes a game last year, but that number will go up unless Jones wants to play small for extended stretches, and it would be extremely helpful if one of them could provide production off the bench.  Jones also has 6'9" freshman Aaron Epps available, but as he's a bit raw LSU likely won't expect him to contribute right away.

Tim Quarterman is the one player off the bench who has significant experience, having played 12.2 minutes and averaging 2.5 points and 1.5 assists last year.  Of course, a former four-star recruit at 6'6", Quarterman has some considerable potential but struggled mightily adjusting to the college game last year.  Freshman Jalyn Patterson will also come off the bench but faces a big learning curve.  Brian Bridgewater sat out last year due to eligibility issues and also, if the official roster is to be believed, put on about 35 pounds (and that's probably not good weight.)  A former high school teammate of Damian Jones, Bridgewater wasn't allowed to practice or travel with the team last year; he's a bit of a mystery at this point.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/7 Morehouse (exh.)
11/15 Gardner-Webb
11/18 Texas Tech
11/21 vs. Old Dominion
11/22 Paradise Jam
11/24 Paradise Jam
11/29 McNeese State
12/2 Massachusetts
12/4 at West Virginia
12/13 Sam Houston State
12/18 at UAB
12/22 Charleston
12/29 Southern Miss
1/3 Savannah State
Conference Home-and-Home

Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee

Conference Home

Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky

Conference Road

Missouri, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Arkansas

While this team looks like it has the talent to be an NCAA team, that non-conference schedule could become an issue.  West Virginia and Texas Tech represent the only two power-conference teams on the schedule, and both are expected to finish toward the bottom of the Big 12.  UMass is a pretty good A-10 team, but outside of the Paradise Jam that's about as good as it gets; Southern Miss is rebuilding this year and a game at UAB is a no-win situation for the Tigers.  That's a bad loss if LSU loses it and won't impress the Selection Committee much if they win.  And about the Paradise Jam -- LSU will see Old Dominion in the first round, followed by Weber State or Illinois State; the best team they could possibly see in the finals is... Clemson?  Seton Hall?  There's not a whole lot on the non-conference schedule that will move the needle much; if LSU gets through this with more than one or two losses that's going to be an issue for the Selection Committee.

With two shots at Florida, a home game against Kentucky, and a road game against Arkansas, LSU does have some opportunities to impress the Selection Committee in SEC play, though.  But again, two games apiece against Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Auburn, and Tennessee isn't likely to move the needle.  If LSU misses the NCAA Tournament, they may have their schedule to blame from the looks of it.

Outlook

I remarked in past previews that there's not a whole lot of difference between #5 and #10.  This is the point at which, at least on paper, you start to see some separation.

LSU already has one elite player in Jordan Mickey and could have another in Jarell Martin.  If Martin does take the next step and becomes a star player, then the talent around those two is clearly good enough for this to be an NCAA team.  Even if Martin doesn't improve much, having a year more or less like last season, this might end up being a borderline NCAA team.

And while several of the previous teams have similar possibilities, in Martin's case the potential is great enough and the possibility of him hitting it good enough that it's a pretty reasonable expectation.  The questions on this team -- guard play and depth -- aren't as big as some of the teams projected lower; the guards are both new but have Division 1 experience and plenty of talent, while even if depth continues to be an issue there are no real holes in the starting five.

The nagging question, and what could prevent LSU from reaching the NCAA Tournament, is the schedule.  Depending on their draw in the Paradise Jam, and how good teams like UMass and West Virginia turn out to be, the Bayou Bengals may not have a single opportunity for a resume-building win outside of SEC play.  And as we've seen in the past couple of seasons, depending on the SEC schedule to build your resume for the tournament is a very hit-or-miss proposition.  There aren't any truly terrible teams on the non-conference schedule, but a relative lack of top-shelf competition means that LSU will absolutely have to take advantage of the few opportunities on the schedule.

In any case, even if Jones doesn't get the Tigers to the tournament this year, his job is safe -- the contract extension is a pretty strong indicator that LSU sees him coaching the program for a while -- and with #1 overall recruit Ben Simmons entering the program next year, LSU's window for making the tournament is hardly limited to this season.  This is definitely a program on the upswing.