There is at least (at most, truthfully) one more game left in LSU’s basketball season, as the Tigers will take on a superior Vanderbilt team in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday. But with a disgraceful 60-51 loss to heretofore league bottom-dweller Auburn to close the regular schedule (with a terrible 11-20 record so far) it’s time to take stock of where the program is after three years under head coach Trent Johnson.
The coach himself gave a pretty good indication of what he thinks the state of his program is last night after his team blew a 15-point second half lead to what had been considered the worst club in the conference. With an 11-20 record and a 3-13 SEC mark, that designation now belongs to LSU for the second year in a row.
“The first thing I’d like to do is apologize to the LSU fan base,” coach Trent Johnson said, “because what has gone on this year has been a total embarrassment. And I think this game tonight is indicative of our inconsistency and our inability to sustain any kind of competitive play for an extended period of time past 30 minutes.”
Johnson’s initial reception as LSU’s coach was a good one; he took a team which had finished near the bottom of the league standings under his predecessor John Brady and interim coach Butch Pierre and guided it to a 27-8 record and an NCAA Tournament berth. That team won the SEC, albeit in a year the league was pitifully weak, and gave eventual national champion North Carolina its toughest test of the tournament before bowing out in the second round.
At the time, LSU’s coach was considered a genius for putting together such a massive improvement. He was named SEC Coach of the Year, which made three leagues in which he has earned that honor; Johnson had been the COY in the Western Athletic Conference and in the Pac-1o during stops at Nevada and Stanford, respectively. It seemed that athletic director Joe Alleva had uncovered a gem in Johnson and the program was poised, at least over the long haul, to finally achieve its promise as a top-flight SEC power – a promise which it had only occasionally reached over the course of its modern history.
But after two straight 20-loss seasons since that first year and a 5-27 SEC record in those two seasons, it now looks like that successful maiden voyage of Johnson’s was more an apparition than anything else. Worse, time has shown that the team Johnson inherited wasn’t the gang of losers they were billed to be when he took over. Marcus Thornton, the star of that team, has emerged as a terrific offensive player in the NBA; he was a fan favorite with the New Orleans Hornets until being traded to Sacramento a week or so ago. But it wasn’t just Thornton; center Chris Johnson and swingman Garrett Temple have both managed to catch on with NBA teams. And forward Tasmin Mitchell, who was the second-leading scorer behind Thornton that year, is averaging 16 points per game with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Developmental League this year. It’s perfectly reasonable that Mitchell might end up making his way to The Show just like those three other members of the 2008-09 LSU team.
That club proved that Johnson can coach a team which has talent. He might not be Mike Krzyzewski or Bobby Knight, but he’s also at least capable of getting performance on the floor when he has something to work with.
But in basketball, you’ve got to recruit players or you’re dead. And three years into his time as LSU’s coach, it’s hard to imagine a worse job of recruiting than Johnson has done.
When he got to LSU, Johnson inherited a team with five seniors, plus another player in Delwan Graham who he ran off as soon as the first season was over. With those six roster vacancies opening up, it was obvious that the program would need a massive talent infusion – immediately – or it was going to collapse. Johnson inherited a recruiting class from Brady which was, in a word, awful; none of those players contributed to the team’s success in the least in his first year and since that time forward Storm Warren is the only one who has shown any signs of being an SEC player. In fact, two of the recruits from that class, Graham and Dennis Harris, have already left the team. The most high-profile of the recruits that year, 6-10 post player J’Mison Morgan, reneged on his letter of intent and ended up at UCLA, where he’s been a bust. Point guard Chris Bass, signed by Johnson as a last-minute addition in 2008, is still on the team but has failed to develop into much more than just another guy off the bench.
Johnson added Aaron Dotson, a shooting guard from Seattle, as his marquee recruit in the November early signing period. Dotson was regarded as a decent recruit but not a franchise-type player, and he blew out a knee early in his senior season in high school. LSU also had a commitment from forward Eddie Ludwig, who everyone knew was a role player rather than an impact recruit in the SEC. It was quite apparent to everyone that this would not be anywhere near enough to keep the program competitive at a high or even medium level, but Johnson inexplicably declined to address the talent deficiency in the 2009 recruiting class. He chose to accept forward Malcolm White, who was a marginal player as a part-time starter at Ole Miss, as a transfer – and then he shut down recruiting for the year with two scholarships still available to give.
As a result, LSU went into last season with Mitchell, returning point guard Bo Spencer and Warren – and virtually nothing else. Johnson and Spencer spent the season squabbling, and the coach jettisoned him after the campaign. A 20-loss season resulted. But recruiting had improved, according to Johnson and his defenders, as he had signed four players of various levels of acclaim – wing players Ralston Turner and Matt Derenbecker, forward Jalen Courtney and point guard Andre Stringer – in November. Johnson then added another Division 1 transfer, center Justin Hamilton from Iowa State, and point guard K.C. Ross-Miller in the late signing period. But Hamilton had to sit this season out under NCAA rules and Ross-Miller couldn’t qualify academically, so neither have helped this season.
So Mitchell and Spencer left the program and Johnson went into this season with a starting lineup of White, Warren, Turner, Dotson and Stringer. Derenbecker ultimately supplanted Dotson in the lineup, and Turner and Warren have been limited by injuries for at least some of the season. Most people believe that while the records are largely the same this LSU team is actually worse than last year’s team was. But the excuse is made that it’s a young team – there are no seniors on it.
That might be true, but LSU only has four freshmen this year, only three of whom play. Johnson has four juniors – Warren, Bass, White and Garrett Green – and three sophomores – Dotson, Ludwig and walkon point guard Darren Populist – on the roster. All of them are veteran players. And yet Turner (12.8 ppg) and Stringer (11.1 ppg) are the only double-figure scorers on the team, though Warren (7.5 ppg) probably would have been a third if he’d stayed healthy. In other words, LSU had seven veteran players to work with this year. In comparison, Kentucky had four, Florida had eight, Alabama 10, Vanderbilt 11, Georgia eight and Tennessee nine. It’s not a particularly veteran team, but it’s also not a completely new team, either.
The problem isn’t youth, it’s talent. Not one player on LSU’s roster made half his field goals this year, an indication of a serious lack of offensive skill on the team. It’s common for freshmen to shoot poorly as they adjust to the speed of the college game and the difference between high school gyms and college arenas, but to be honest it’s an item of substantial concern that Turner, Stringer and Derenbecker – the three players this program is supposed to be building around – shot 38.5 percent, 33.6 percent and 38.5 percent, respectively. You’ll shoot your team right out of games with percentages like that.
By comparison, the really good freshmen elsewhere in the league were considerably better – Brandon Knight (45.4 percent), Terrence Jones (45.7 percent) and Doron Lamb (49.4 percent) were all above 45 percent at Kentucky, Tobias Harris shoots 44.5 percent at Tennessee, Trevor Releford shoots 47.9 percent for Alabama and Dundrecous Nelson shoots 40.5 percent for Ole Miss. Bruce Ellington only shoots 33.0 percent for South Carolina; he’s the one prominent freshman in the SEC not at LSU who isn’t above 40 percent from the floor.
Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to say Turner has a good shot to be a solid starter in the SEC. Derenbecker and Stringer are probably best suited as 6th-or-7th men; both can be quite good when they get hot but Stringer’s small stature and deficiencies as a ballhandler make him questionable as a starting point guard in this conference and Derenbecker’s defense is a real liability. It’s fair to say Warren is best suited as a prominent reserve as well; he can score and when he’s healthy his effort and athleticism is useful, but he’s a 6-foot-6 post player and because of that fact he’s going to get into foul trouble struggling to defend taller players.
Beyond those guys, LSU has veteran players who just can’t play at this level. If a sophomore or a junior hasn’t shown strong signs of being able to compete with the better teams – signs which show up repeatedly, not just on a couple of odd occasions over the course of a season – then he’s probably never going to do it. Particularly when that sophomore or junior is on a team like LSU, where playing time is at anything but a premium. Anybody who can play even a little on this team would get all the floor time he wants.
This is the end of Johnson’s third season, and he’s responsible for bringing in nine of the eleven current players LSU has. So far, the only thing you can conclude is his talent management is a disaster.
It is entirely reasonable to call for the coach’s head under these circumstances. He’s brought in eight scholarship players in his time here so far (Populist, being a walkon, doesn’t count, and since Hamilton hasn’t seen the floor yet he doesn’t count either), and only one of them looks like a legitimate SEC starter – with two others as kinda-sorta-maybe SEC players. Virtually no coach would expect to last long with that kind of performance. But while it might be reasonable, it’s not realistic; Johnson was LSU athletic director Joe Alleva’s signature hire upon arriving at LSU, and Alleva has already said he’s not going to give up on the coach so quickly (Alleva’s quote was actually that Johnson’s job would be safe if LSU were to have lost 20 straight games, a quote which enraged many of what fans are left who do care about basketball). Furthermore, in this era of budget cuts and austerity in Tigertown the idea of buying out two years of a coach’s contract isn’t one with much of a following on campus at present.
So Johnson is getting another year, whether he deserves it or not. Is there reason to believe that the fourth year won’t be more of the same as the last two?
LSU’s recruiting class for next year does legitimately appear to be better than anything Johnson has brought in so far.
Hamilton has been practicing with the team all year and he’s apparently quite a bit better than the post players who took the floor this year. That was more or less the story LSU fans were told about White last year, so getting people to actually believe it is an iffy proposition. But at 6-11 and 260 pounds Hamilton is at least a big body in the middle, and at Iowa State he was at least a physical presence and a guy who could make shots down low – as a sophomore last year he shot 61.7 percent from the floor, which would have made him a primary scoring option on this LSU team for certain regardless of the fact he only scored 6.4 points per game for the Cyclones. It’s a reasonably safe assumption that he’ll upgrade LSU’s starting lineup at center next year.
It’s also a reasonably safe assumption that Johnny O’Bryant, the 6-9, 250-pound power forward from Cleveland, Mississippi Johnson signed in November, will also upgrade the starting lineup. O’Bryant was named a McDonald’s All-American earlier this year, which makes him the first player LSU has had since Tasmin Mitchell to attain such acclaim. There’s no question O’Bryant will bring more upside to the post than anybody else in the program; he has detractors who say that his high school competition is very soft and that his conditioning will need lots of improvement, but he’s still going to improve the inside game for Johnson’s team.
And if Hamilton and O’Bryant are able to give the team something of an inside presence it will likely make Turner, Stringer and Derenbecker better players. Perimeter shooters always benefit from being able to dump the ball inside, have the defense collapse and then get a kickout pass for an open jumper; that almost never happened this year.
Johnson also signed a relatively unheralded Louisiana high school recruit in 6-4 Pickering High School wing guard John Isaac in November. Isaac isn’t on any of the major recruiting services’ lists, but his circumstances are such that perhaps that shouldn’t be held against him. Isaac blew out a knee before his junior season at Pickering and thus didn’t play either last year or last summer on the AAU circuit, and most of the recruiting services do their player evaluations off how they look in AAU ball. Isaac has come off that injury in strong fashion this year, though; he averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds in the regular season, including a 30 point performance against a 4A playoff team in Leesville, and then he put together some excellent performances in the playoffs. In a first-round overtime win over Mansfield, Isaac ripped the Wolverines for 36 points and 17 rebounds. Against Lusher Charter on Wednesday, Isaac was good for 29 points and 13 rebounds. Friday night, Episcopal of Baton Rouge nipped Pickering to knock them out just shy of this week’s Top 28 tournament, but Isaac won the individual battle with Episcopal’s sophomore superstar and likely future McDonald’s All-American Brian Bridgewater, outscoring him 18 points to 16. Bridgewater, the brother of former LSU forward Brad Bridgewater, had lit up Farmerville for 45 points in his previous game.
Whether Isaac is good enough to upgrade LSU’s perimeter game is anybody’s guess. Those who have seen him play say he’s better than Turner or Derenbecker, but it’s impossible to say for sure.
And supposedly the Tigers are recruiting a junior-college player for essentially the first time in Johnson’s career. Dylan Talley, a 6-4 combo guard from Blinn JC in Texas, has offensive skills not dissimilar to Marcus Thornton’s; Talley is the leading scorer in the Texas junior colleges at 23.0 ppg, and he’s also showed off some versatility in his game with 6.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. Talley’s shooting percentages (49 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the three-point line and 78 percent from the foul line) indicate he’s an immediate upgrade from what the Tigers currently have, even with Turner’s expected improvement. Without question Talley would upgrade LSU’s starting lineup. In fact, his credentials indicate he could be the kind of player who can turn his team around.
But of course Talley isn’t a signee. He’s not even a commitment at this point. To make any judgement about what he’d do for Johnson is wildly speculative. It’s probably worth noting that Johnson decided not to go the JC route before, and now he’s doing it – which seems to be a repudiation of sorts of his squeaky-clean, academic-and-character-selectivity stance. Not that there’s any reason to think Talley falls short on that score, mind you; it’s just hard to believe that there were no junior-college players meeting that standard last year or two years ago Johnson could have reeled in to alleviate the horrendous lack of talent he’s put on the floor.
So sure – LSU might get better next year. A lineup of Hamilton, O’Bryant, Turner, Isaac and Talley, with Warren, Stringer and Derenbecker coming off the bench might actually put LSU back into the discussion in the SEC West, though the league isn’t as down as it was in Johnson’s first year and it’s unlikely the Tigers could get beyond a .500 record in conference play unless O’Bryant and Talley were to be NBA-quality players. If they were, of course, then it’s possible Johnson could produce something along the lines of a worst-to-first comeback the way he did his first year in Baton Rouge – and in so doing make these and other expressed misgivings about his stewardship of the program seem unfounded.
But there’s a funny thing about NBA-quality players: they go to the NBA. And in the event Johnson were to hit the jackpot with O’Bryant and Talley and both would move on to the next level as one-and-done players, it could signal a repeat of history – LSU will have four seniors next year in addition to those guys, and find himself just as cleaned out after Year Four as he was after Year One. What is the coach doing about recruiting for 2012? Well, there are a number of SEC-quality high school juniors in Louisiana at present, chief among them 6-7 Ricardo Gathers at Riverside Academy in LaPlace. LSU is recruiting them all, but so far none have committed; in Gathers’ case depending on who you listen to LSU isn’t even in the lead. And before our readers remark that it’s too early to worry about high school juniors and whether they’ve committed, let’s not forget Isaac had pledged to LSU as a sophomore. In fact, 38 of Rivals.com’s top 150 list for 2012 have already committed – including two players who have committed to Auburn and Florida, respectively.
What’s more, it doesn’t appear that Johnson has done anything to remedy the deficiency of recruiting on his coaching staff. Last year when lead recruiter Keith Richard left to take the head coaching job at UL-Monroe, Johnson chose to replace him with his 68-year old former boss Lynn Nance – who had been a head coach at Washington from 1990-93 and Southwest Baptist College from 1996-99. That was inexplicable to some followers of the program given that former LSU star Randy Livingston, currently the head coach of the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Developmental League, wanted the job. Livingston would have unquestionably helped in recruiting. But even if Livingston wasn’t the hire, bringing in Nance – who had been out of coaching at the college level for over a decade – doesn’t seem to have been a particularly savvy move in terms of boosting the program’s recruiting. At minimum, one has to think Alleva is going to tell Johnson he’s got to change out some assistants and get people more competitive on the recruiting trail.
Could this work out? Sure. The most likely positive scenario is that next year’s newcomers rescue the program in a fashion Johnson has needed newcomers to do for the past two years. In other words, two years too late. Which is also to say that even if Johnson does turn things around based on the recruiting class he brings in after three years on the job, it’s really just a correction of what he didn’t do his first or second year.
Johnson has attracted some fans among the LSU community for his integrity and commitment to build the program without some of the shady dealings other coaches have been accused of, and we should all want to see clean conduct from LSU basketball. But ultimately you can’t draw a $1.3 million salary and expect to stick around long without winning.
Whether Alleva offers public support or not, it’s clear that patience with the coach has to be at an end. If Johnson can’t show a definitive improvement next year – and by definitive, we mean making the program a contender in the league and at least a potential NCAA Tournament participant – the athletic director is going to have to swallow hard, admit he made a mistake in hiring Johnson, and try again with another coach.