NIT Snub Gives Big Wakeup Call To LSU Basketball

This isn’t an “I told you so” post about Johnny Jones, though it will likely be perceived that way by some who derived some enjoyment from the just-murdered 19-12 campaign the Tiger basketball coach put on the wall in his first year.

But last night, when LSU was left out in the cold despite an RPI of 85 – which was just one spot behind the No. 84 ranking that earned them an NIT bid a year ago – the college basketball world issued a rather stern assessment of where the Tiger program really is.

Namely, that despite the enthusiasm which seems to have built about the program over the course of the season Jones has not perfected a quick turnaround for his alma mater.

Naturally, the argument can and should be made that Jones shouldn’t be judged on his first season. After all, he recruited a Top 10 class for next year, complete with three players ranked in the top 66 of Rivals.com’s Top 150 list (ESPN ranks those three players all in its top 81), and that represents the best haul for LSU in a decade (John Brady’s 2003 class of Brandon Bass, Regis Koundjia, Tack Minor, Ross Neltner and Darnell Lazare was ranked No. 4 in the country; this year’s class ranks No. 6). That alone is a reason to think LSU’s NCAA Tournament drought is a year from ending and tangible progress in rebuilding the program into a consistent winner should be coming soon.

The NIT snub is, moreover, a larger indictment of Jones’ predecessor Trent Johnson, who left a very sparse cupboard for Jones as he departed for oblivion at TCU. Johnson just finished a miserable 11-21 season in Fort Worth, winning just two of 18 games in the Big 12. One might think “well, that’s just a rebuilding year,” but of course Johnson took over a team which went 18-15 last season and returned a sizable chunk of its roster. By this point we can say that if Trent Johnson doesn’t have an NBA talent like the Lopez twins, Adam Fazekas or Marcus Thornton on his team he’s an atrocious coach – and he seldom recruits NBA players unless they fall into his lap like the Lopezes did. That knowledge was pretty common at Stanford, where Johnson wasn’t offered a raise or extension even despite winning 28 games and going to a Sweet 16 in his last year; LSU athletic director Joe Alleva was dumb enough to take Johnson off their hands and essentially tubed the program with the hire.

You could make the argument that Johnson was the worst hire for a major sport at LSU, ever. That designation used to belong to Curley Hallman, and deservedly so. But the thing about Hallman was that while he was a miserable failure as a coach in Tigertown, at least the team Hallman left to Gerry DiNardo had a solid base of future NFL players on it. DiNardo managed to put a 7-4-1 record together in his first year, with an Independence Bowl win over Nick Saban’s Michigan State team to close the season. And while that team was certainly upgraded by freshmen like Kevin Faulk, Todd McClure and Herb Tyler, it was still greatly reliant on players Hallman left to DiNardo.

Johnson left very little to Jones. Yes, Johnny O’Bryant and Anthony Hickey were legitimate front-line SEC starters, and Andre Stringer is a nice three-point threat. Beyond that? Zilch. The best returning player after O’Bryant, Hickey and Stringer was Andrew Del Piero, a walkon from the band whose development under Jones’ tutelage was amazing – and Del Piero, for all that improvement, contributed all of 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds a game. The other two returnees, Eddie Ludwig and Jalen Courtney, contributed virtually nothing. Jones took over less than half a roster and only half of that half was really productive.

And Johnson didn’t leave Jones much from a recruiting standpoint, either. Only one player was signed for this year at the time Jones got the job – shooting guard Malik Morgan. Morgan averaged 5.3 points a game and looks like he might develop into a pretty good player before he’s through, but he certainly wasn’t a difference-maker as a freshman. One wonders what Johnson thought he was going to accomplish with the roster he left Jones; obviously not much, since he decamped for TCU rather than face that music.

Jones deserves some credit for scrambling together a competitive team with what was available after he took the job. Shavon Coleman, who might have been a Tiger even if Johnson had stayed since he was on the former coach’s recruiting board, and sixth-year immediately-eligible transfer Charles Carmouche both averaged 10 points a game and both players gave LSU a lift. Coleman was a spark on the team early in the season, and Carmouche was its leader late. Without those two, this team would have likely looked a lot like Johnson’s TCU team did this year. Jones also managed to get a little bit of depth with Shane Hammink and Corban Collins; neither made much of a difference in the team’s play, but they did combine for 20 minutes a game Johnson had nobody to play.

And yet Johnson managed to make the NIT with a cratering program and Jones’ team went nowhere with one which is supposed to have momentum.

Can you argue LSU got screwed by the NIT? Perhaps. Washington and St. John’s made the NIT despite worse records and worse RPI rankings than LSU, and for all the discussion of how horrible the SEC was this year (only three NCAA bids, only three NIT bids), the Pac-10 wasn’t exactly the greatest conference in the world either. And St. John’s had a losing record in the Big East, finishing 11th out of 15 teams after losing five straight games to finish the season. This year’s LSU team at least felt like it was better than last year’s team; it ended up with a 9-9 SEC record, better than last year’s 7-9, and it was 6-6 against the RPI Top 100, better than last year’s 5-10.

But there were a few things which showed up this year that indicate this isn’t exactly the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and it’s not just the bad news on Selection Sunday.

First, the biggest reason LSU wasn’t able to take advantage of a terrible SEC this year and post the kind of record Johnson did in his first season when he won the conference in the regular season and yet was all of a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament was the giant, gaping hole in the frontcourt. When Justin Hamilton decided to turn pro after last year and Johnson hadn’t recruited anyone to replace either his presence in the middle or the graduating Storm Warren or Malcolm White, Jones’ most important priority was to cobble together something to go with O’Bryant inside. At 6-6 and 190 pounds, Coleman wasn’t going to be able to measure up for extended periods of time and though he’s 6-7, Hammink’s background is as a guard; he wasn’t much of a fit for the role of post player.

Jones knew this and went out and got a pair of recruits from the Texas JUCO ranks – 6-10 Nigerian John Odoh, a Nigerian he’d previously signed when he was the coach at North Texas, and 6-8 Calvin Godfrey, who had been Coleman’s teammate at Howard College. But Odoh couldn’t get eligible until December, and took this season as a redshirt while practicing with the team for the last two-thirds of the season (and the improvement O’Bryant and Del Piero made in the second half of the year really ought to be seen as an effect of having to practice against Odoh every day, which is an encouraging sign), and Godfrey never made it to campus at all. While Odoh, who led the country with 14 rebounds a game and also had just under five blocked shots a game in the JC ranks last year (he only scored 12 points a game, so his role won’t likely be that of a big scorer), will in all likelihood constitute a major upgrade from Del Piero last year, he should have been one this year. And not having Godfrey meant Jalen Courtney played nine minutes a game when the latter really shouldn’t have been playing at all in contested games.

And strangely enough, even despite the rough circumstances LSU found themselves in thanks to what Johnson left in the cupboard the team’s perimeter play was really pretty good. Hickey, Stringer, Carmouche and Coleman all scored in double figures, which made for a backcourt as good as almost anybody in the SEC. The guards kept LSU in nearly every game and even won a few – the wins over Missouri and Alabama were perfect examples.

Not having Odoh and Godfrey – or perhaps more to the point, not having two additional players in the post who could help take pressure off O’Bryant – was a fatal problem for Jones this year. And while it’s not fair to judge his recruiting based on last year’s scramble, he can’t lose a third of his signees to academics every year without fielding teams with fatal holes in them.

This is a concern for two reasons. First, academic issues were a concern for Jones’ recruiting when he was at North Texas. And second, Jones was a protege of Dale Brown’s at LSU, and nobody misfired on academic casualties in basketball recruiting like Brown did – with Jones as his lead recruiter for most of the second half of his tenure.

It’s a concern he has to allay. While Jarrell Martin, the 6-9 McDonald’s All-American from Madison Prep in Baton Rouge who headlines Jones’ recruiting class is a shining reason for optimism that LSU can compete for the best players in the country, this is not a program which can select rather than recruit the way LSU can in football and baseball. Opting for players who can’t get in school, and then counting on them, is a good way to trash the program.

But Jones’ game management wasn’t great this year, either. We noticed, as did lots of other people, that Jones simply won’t call time out to put a stop to an opponent’s momentum during a game; he tries to wait for the TV timeouts. And that played a role in a few games this year; LSU would begin clicking offensively and cause havoc with its pressure defense and build a bit of a lead, but then opposing coaches would counter with a time out and blunt LSU’s momentum. And once LSU petered out and the opponent’s run began, there was very little coming from the sideline to stop it.

The results were painful to watch. Ole Miss went on a 30-9 run to key a blowout in Baton Rouge in the season finale which proved devastating to the team’s postseason hopes. Georgia cut a 20-point halftime lead down to two points before Stringer hit a key 3-pointer to ice a first-round SEC Tournament win. And so on.

LSU had moments where it was clear the team’s athleticism and style of play was going to cause trouble for its opponents. But they were only moments. Sustaining quality play was never something this team showed itself capable of doing. Maybe that’s a function of talent level; maybe not. But the game management and the time out management in particular definitely looked like a factor.

And while Jones did look like he could run a press defense that was effective at times, this was a lousy defensive club. A big part of that was the hole in the post opposite O’Bryant, which allowed for opponents to get lots of offensive rebounds and some easy baskets driving through the lane. That obviously couldn’t be helped after Odoh and Godfrey didn’t get into school. But what was a major concern was that good scorers were able to absolutely go off on this team. Marshall Henderson from Ole Miss, Jordan McCrae from Tennessee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from Georgia were only three players who had career nights against this team when it should have been clear that stopping them from scoring at will was key to winning. None of those guys are 7-footers; LSU actually had the personnel to match up with them and yet they still were able to get whatever shots they wanted. It’s one thing when somebody your scouting report doesn’t indicate can beat you has a big game (though even in that case when a guy gets hot you need to make adjustments and stop him); it’s something a little more concerning when you can’t stop the guy you know you’re going to need to stop.

We’re agnostic on the much-debated question whether Jones’ half-court sets are any good. LSU runs the same offense everybody else in college basketball is running right now; bring a post player to the top of the key and run a high-ball screen designed to enable the point guard to penetrate into the lane and then flow the offense from there. That offense stinks and the fact it doesn’t work all that well is probably the number one reason offensive output is terrible all over the country, but everybody runs it because it’s easy to coach. Of course, the teams who have great coaches don’t run it and they score plenty. LSU is running it and LSU’s team field goal percentage, a good indication of the quality of shots a team gets out of its offense, was .428 – tied for 199th in the country and 9th in the SEC. The quality of LSU’s half-court offense, as a matter of execution, isn’t fatal. But LSU didn’t do anything which consistently gave anybody trouble, either.

But one indication of a team with suspect coaching is free throw shooting, and LSU was beyond abysmal at the stripe. The Tigers were last in the SEC – and nearly last in the country (333rd out of 347 teams) – in free throw shooting at a pathetic .625. Typically speaking you can expect to have a suspect free throw shooting team if your roster is heavy with post players, as big guys tend to stink at the foul line. But LSU’s roster is heavy with guards, and guards are supposed to be able to shoot free throws.

And what’s worse is that everybody on LSU’s team, save for Del Piero, shot worse at the foul line this year than they did in a previous college season. If one or two guys got worse, that would be one thing. It’s something else when all of them do.

O’Bryant’s percentage went from .625 last year to .596 this year. Hickey’s went from .553 to .444. Stringer went from .822 to .737. Carmouche went from .727 (at Memphis) to .670. Courtney was a .750 career free throw shooter, and he dropped to .650 this year. And the team’s free throw percentage, despite having a bunch more post players last season, went from .691 to .625.

That’s a glaring, ugly fact which indicates a potential structural issue with this coaching staff. It doesn’t mean Jones can’t coach free throw shooting – actually, his North Texas teams were routinely well over 70 percent at the foul line. But while you can get away with having suspect athletes who shoot the heck out of some free throws in the Sun Belt you really can’t in the SEC; a guy like O’Bryant or Hickey needs to be coached up at the foul line. Whatever Jones’ staff did this year didn’t work.

Don’t take from all this that Jones is a disaster, or that he’s not better than Johnson. Clearly he’s a better recruiter than Johnson was and based on the expectations for this program in the preseason Jones gets credit for at least giving some hope for the future. But one hopes Jones was hired to meet a higher standard than just improving over what Trent Johnson produced, and last night’s tournament snub indicates that he has yet to meet that standard.

That’s not an indictment, it’s just an honest assessment. So far Jones has offered some reasons for optimism and some reason for concern. And the renaissance we’re desperately hoping for in LSU basketball is at least a year (if hopefully just a year) away.

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