“What should be done eventually, must be done immediately.”
– Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley
Today the news of something that has been rumored all week officially broke – Justin Hamilton, the center on LSU’s basketball team, is turning pro.
Hamilton’s numbers as a junior this past season don’t exactly recommend him for the NBA. The 7-footer averaged 12.9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Those were pretty good numbers, and he led LSU in both categories and in field goal percentage as well, but hardly placed him in superstar territory. What’s more, Hamilton essentially disappeared in the back half of the 2011-12 season – including the final stretch in which the Tigers lost five of their last six games as Hamilton averaged just 9.6 points.
Hamilton won’t likely be drafted in the NBA’s first round. It’s questionable whether he’ll go in the 2nd round either, though the league does have some demand for stoutly-built 7-footers with a quality mid-range jumper even if they’re not particularly athletic. But he can certainly go to Europe and make a team, and even bench-warmers can command six-figure salaries over there. And given that he’s graduating and just got married, the prospect of that kind of paycheck obviously makes more sense to the former transfer from Utah State than playing another year in Baton Rouge.
The loss of a player who averaged 12.9 points a game shouldn’t be crippling. Hamilton is an OK player, nothing special, and he should be replaceable in a decent basketball program. LSU’s other returning post player, Johnny O’Bryant, has considerably more upside than Hamilton does – assuming that the rumors about O’Bryant considering a transfer aren’t true.
But on this LSU roster, Hamilton’s loss is devastating. And it makes obvious that LSU’s basketball future is best summed up by the oft-repeated quote from Jeremy Foley printed above.
Foley’s statement came after he fired former Gator head football coach Ron Zook in 2004 following a mediocre 7-4 football season which indicated Florida wasn’t going anywhere as a program after three years of Zook’s stewardship. And Foley came to the conclusion that Zook, who was a friend of his, would eventually need to be fired because he saw Florida as a program which had the resources, tradition and fan base to be great. After all, Zook succeeded Steve Spurrier, who won nearly-chronic championships there. And when Zook was fired Foley replaced him with Urban Meyer, who won two national titles beginning with one his second year.
What should be done eventually must be done immediately.
That brings us to Johnson’s tenure as LSU’s basketball coach. He just finished his fourth season with an uninspiring 18-15 record which ended in a 96-76 blowout loss to Oregon in the NIT. Except that uninspiring record was actually hailed as evidence of improvement, seeing as though LSU had spent the two previous seasons in the SEC cellar, having lost 41 games in that stretch and compiling a 5-27 mark in conference play. In all, Johnson’s combined record in the final three seasons is 39-56, a winning percentage of .411, and in SEC play he’s 12-36 over the past three years, a winning percentage of .250.
Based on that record, if it continues Johnson will surely be fired. Based on that record he’s lucky he wasn’t fired last month.
He wasn’t, of course, for two reasons. First, Johnson was Joe Alleva’s first hire as LSU’s athletic director and Alleva has protected him ever since, and second, in Johnson’s first year with a team including four future pros inherited from John Brady he posted a very successful 27-8 record and won a conference title. That result earned Johnson an SEC Coach of the Year award, and it gave the coach’s supporters ammunition in suggesting that he’s capable of being successful when he has some talent to work with.
Because of that, up until this week we were given an indication that Johnson would come back next year but he faced a make-or-break season in Year 5 of his tenure.
But even his strongest defenders admitted that a Year 5 Trent Johnson team which couldn’t get to the NCAA Tournament would be an indication he’s just not the answer to the program. Four years without getting to the Big Dance in an athletic program as wealthy and prominent as LSU’s is simply won’t cut it; we can all agree on that.
And that’s why Hamilton’s loss should be a significant one for LSU.
Namely, because without Hamilton and given the current state of Johnson’s recruiting there is simply no way LSU will even match this past year’s accomplishments. The team’s roster simply doesn’t have enough talent to come close to 18-15, much less make the NCAA Tournament.
Before Hamilton chose to leave, LSU was in a position to have just nine scholarship players on next year’s roster. That is to say, between returning players and recruits Johnson had signed or taken verbal commitments from there were only nine players he could count on for next year. The spring signing period starts on Wednesday of next week, and Johnson has said he expects to take two or three players in that period, but as of today he can’t point to a single public commitment to fulfill that expectation.
But the gross number of nine players – meaning as of yesterday, before Hamilton flew the coop and made it eight, LSU was leaving four scholarships unfilled – isn’t the worst fact at hand in projecting next season’s results. What was far worse was that only three players of the nine could be reasonably viewed as post players. That was Hamilton, O’Bryant (who averaged 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds a game and though he was wildly inconsistent showed signs he might be a good player in the future) and Eddie Ludwig – a 6-9 forward who played mostly at the “3” this past year and whose career averages include 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds a game in three years. LSU also has Jalen Courtney, a 6-8 forward who has never really played a post position and whose two-year career averages include 1.8 points and 0.9 rebounds per game. And LSU has Andrew Del Piero, a 7-2 walkon who’ll be a senior next year. Del Piero, who was a tuba player in LSU’s band before taking a stab at basketball, has had three points and two rebounds in four games as an LSU player.
That was LSU’s depth in the post before Hamilton left. Now, either Ludwig, Courtney or Del Piero will end up playing in the post next year alongside O’Bryant – which likely means O’Bryant is going to be much easier to defend without a credible companion in the post and he’s also quite likely to get in foul trouble since he’ll have no help defensively down low. So much for LSU’s sole McDonald’s All-American blossoming as a sophomore.
Johnson doesn’t appear to have a credible shot at fixing this soon-to-be-fatal problem at present, either. He’s attempting to sign a highly-rated 6-10 player from California named Norvel Pelle, though six days from the opening of the spring signing period it doesn’t appear clear whether Pelle will even visit. He’s also recruiting a 6-10 forward from Pittsburgh named Barnett Harris who is much less highly-rated; in fact, Harris’ senior season at Gateway High School ended with his scoring just four points against a team with no players taller than 6-3.
Johnson is also recruiting a 6-6 forward from Howard Junior College in Texas named Shavon Coleman, with a reasonably decent chance of signing him. Coleman, after all, hails from Thibodaux, so he has a local connection. And with all-conference numbers on a 23-8 team (14.5 points and 6.4 rebounds a game), Coleman would definitely help this program. But a 6-6 Coleman is no substitute for a 7-0 Hamilton, and he’s not really a post player. With Oklahoma and Texas Tech in the mix, both of whom are arguably in better shape for competitive futures than LSU is (Texas Tech was abysmal but returns virtually everyone and has signed a decent class, while Oklahoma was a 15-16 team with all their key people back and a strong class on board already as well), it’s not all that good a sign when Johnson will have to convince Coleman he won’t be forced into playing the “4” or “5” if he chooses LSU.
In short, failing some deus ex machina scenario in the spring signing period, LSU’s recruiting efforts won’t prove to offset the loss of Hamilton. Johnson’s one signee for next year, Malik Morgan of John Curtis High in River Ridge, does look like a quality player who will improve the team’s perimeter (which was a weakness last year). But at this late date his team is going to get killed inside every night. And you can’t win games in a major conference when you get killed inside even if your guards are sensational – which LSU’s aren’t. They’re average, and maybe they’ll be slightly above average next year – but that depends on the rumor about point guard Anthony Hickey leaving being false. We don’t believe that one, but it’s out there.
Taking this into consideration, barring the deus ex machina scenario, Johnson is going to lose, and lose big, next year.
It’s worth mentioning that he’s not even working with a full coaching staff, since assistant Nick Robinson bolted last week to take the head coaching job at Southern Utah. That leaves Johnson two assistants short of a full staff; when Robinson was promoted last year to a full-time assistant Johnson left the Director of Basketball Operations job open. There are rumors of candidates being mentioned, but nobody has been hired.
This looks like disarray. It looks like a program which isn’t going to get back to where Brady left it for Johnson in the next year – if ever. We’re discussing the abject failing of the head coach where recruiting is concerned, but what’s just as bad if not worse is the fan interest in the program. LSU had less than 5,000 season ticket holders for the first time in decades this past year, and average attendance was 8,661 – better than it was the year before, but not as good as the first two years of Johnson’s tenure.
There is no buzz around the program, and Hamilton leaving indicates there won’t be anytime soon. And a third losing season in four next year, which is almost assured, will certainly mean Johnson’s time at LSU would end. His defenders often mention that over the last 20 years LSU basketball has had far more disastrously poor seasons than good ones, but they don’t mention that this phenomenon can be traced in large part to the fact that LSU also tends to be loyal to a fault with hoops coaches who don’t produce results. Few programs with as many losses as LSU has racked up in the last two decades have had only three coaches in that time frame. And this is a very rich athletic program which has made a multi-million dollar investment in a brand new practice facility and has totally redone its arena in recent years; it has the brick and mortar of a winner but not, it seems, the human capital of one based on current circumstances.
So if LSU’s program has the resources and the desire to reach standards Johnson isn’t going to satisfy,why not make a change now?
Is it late in the game? Without question. Will making a change now ruin recruiting? Well, it might if there was much in the way of recruiting to ruin or a current staff that was making any significant headway with the recruits out there.
But what’s definitely true is that there are good coaches out there to replace Johnson with.
This year has been one of the slowest for the basketball coaching carousel in modern memory. Two SEC schools, Mississippi State and South Carolina, changed coaches. South Carolina hit a home run by landing Kansas State’s Frank Martin, while Mississippi State settled on an unknown assistant from Clemson named Rick Ray. Beyond the SEC, very few high-profile jobs opened up – Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas State (thanks to South Carolina’s hire) and TCU are the only major-conference schools having changed coaches so far, and of that group only TCU still has an opening.
And there are lots of coaches at mid-major schools who haven’t had an opportunity to move up to a place like LSU and make the $1.5 million per year Trent Johnson is making. Should LSU enter the market they’d have access to a coach who could bring a winning resume, charisma, aggressive recruiting and a fun style of basketball to the table.
Johnson is going to get fired next year anyway. And if he loses 20 games, like he did two years in a row prior to this past year when he had demonstrably talent-deficient teams, the wreckage might well take Alleva down as the guy who hired and protected him. If that’s obvious, why not take a chance at fixing the problem now and start anew?
UPDATE: Alleva might have some St. Patrick’s Day luck laying over, because it looks like this decision might be made for him…
LSU’s Trent Johnson has emerged as a leading candidate at TCU.
Sources told CBSSports.com that TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte has, after failing to get Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon to return to his alma mater, has targeted Johnson — who has spent the past four years in Baton Rouge.
Johnson, 55, is 58-59 at LSU — with an NCAA tournament appearance in his first season at the school.
However, he went to three NCAA tournaments in his four years at Stanford — including a Sweet 16 in 2008. He also went to a Sweet 16 at Nevada in 2007 and was 79-74 in five seasons with the Wolf Pack.
Johnson would take over a program that’s headed to the Big 12 and would also replace Jim Christian, who left to go to Ohio last week. Christian was 56-73 in his tenure.