About Last Night…

This won’t be a political post.

Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, as politics – the LSU kind – was without question a big piece of what happened in Dallas last night. Namely, that the LSU basketball season is over thanks to an 80-67 drubbing at the hands of a Larry Brown-coached SMU team which looked like it belonged in the NCAA Tournament rather than the consolation-prize National Invitational Tournament the Tigers found themselves in this year.

Our readers probably know we’re not at all sold on Johnny Jones as the right man to build a basketball program at LSU to rival the stature of, say, the school’s football and baseball programs which regularly compete for national championships. We said so prior to his hire, retreated to a defensible position wishing him the best after the hire though criticizing the process which produced it and then pointed out problems after his first season.

Now that Year Two is over, we see very little to change our initial opinion that Jones did nothing in the 11 years he spent as the head coach at North Texas to merit a job at a high-level program like LSU, and a political hire such as he was – it was a collection of alumni who wanted “their” man coaching the program combined with a weak athletic director pandering to them – is doomed to mediocrity or worse.

SMU, which has exceedingly little basketball tradition and especially little since head coach Dave Bliss departed for New Mexico in 1988 – the Mustangs hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993 or to the NIT since 2000 before this year – hired Brown at the same time LSU hired Jones. At 71 years old at the time, the Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who served as head coach for nine NBA teams as well as college powers UCLA and Kansas over a 38-year career prior to signing on at SMU seemed like something of a reach as a hire, and he was panned as a headline-grabber rather than a bid for actual success.

But Brown took a team which was 13-19 under Matt Doherty to 15-17 last year and now a (so far) 25-9 breakout season this year. SMU would have been in the NCAA Tournament – and probably belonged there – but for a rough stretch right before Selection Sunday when they lost to Top 25 teams Louisville and Memphis and then, inexplicably, to Houston in the first round of the American Athletic Conference tournament. Brown’s team loses only two seniors who combined for less than 15 points per game and he signed the No. 2 point guard in the country, Emmanuel Mudiay, for next year back in November.

In other words, the little Methodist college on the Hilltop nobody ever thought would be relevant in basketball went out and hired the best resume they could find, and because he was “too old” they backed him by hiring Illinois State’s head coach Tim Jankovich, who had won 104 games in five years there, including four NIT trips, as the coach-in-waiting for a break-the-bank salary of $700,000 per year. And two years in, not only is SMU relevant but they’re likely to be a Top 25 team in the preseason poll next year.

Brown has signed two McDonald’s All-Americans in three years at SMU, which is one more than LSU has signed in the same period.

Johnny Jones is known as a recruiter. Brown is known as 73 years old.

Watching last night’s game, the difference was obvious between a Hall of Fame coach and a guy Collis Temple buffaloed Joe Alleva into hiring. LSU was lights-out shooting in the first half, but as Brown made adjustments and began disrupting the Tiger offense the game turned into a rout. LSU scored 15 points in the first 15 minutes of the second half, and the game got away from Jones in a hurry.

LSU started this season 9-2, and at one point was 14-6 after a pair of quality home wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. They finished 20-14, losing eight of their last 14 games and going 11-12 since New Year’s Day. But since this team made it to the NIT after last year’s team was locked out of postseason play after going 19-12 (half a game better, with the same 9-9 record in conference, following the SEC tournament), we’re given to believe Jones is making progress.

Is he really? Most people would say that if you bring back four double-figure scorers back from a 19-12 team and add a Top 10 recruiting class to the mix you should be greatly improved. Instead, LSU went from 9-2 out of conference in 2012-13 to 9-3 this year, albeit against slightly better competition, and posted an identical 9-9 record in conference. The NIT berth was likely a function of more small conference regular-season champions, who are guaranteed automatic NIT berths, winning their conference tournaments and getting to the NCAA field this year than last year.

So Jones was luckier this season. But with a far more talented team he didn’t produce any more results than he did last year, when – as his defenders point out – he was using a former tuba player in the band as his center and he had patched together a roster out of whole cloth after being left a thin broth from previous coach Trent Johnson. But last year’s team had an outstanding senior leader in Charles Carmouche, who transferred from Memphis over the summer and gave the team defense, hustle, presence and good shooting inside and outside, and he was never really replaced. And that tuba player, Andrew Del Piero, was 7-3 and 260 pounds, and he was a more physical, willing defensive presence in the lane than anybody this year’s team had.

In fact, Del Piero gave LSU far more than the two big men Jones added this year, Darcy Malone and John Odo, ever did. So the defense of Jones’ exploits in Year One made for an even larger indictment of this year’s performance.

LSU’s backcourt was worse than in Jones’ first year. LSU’s frontcourt was certainly better, as Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are the primary reasons for optimism about the program. They’re also the only two double-figure scorers coming back for next year, as Johnny O’Bryant is certainly going pro and Andre Stringer is a senior. Shavon Coleman, who averaged 9.1 points a game after scoring 10 points a game last year, is also a senior, while Anthony Hickey (8.4 ppg) will be back next year.

That means three players – Mickey, Martin and Hickey – will come back as veteran contributors. If Malik Morgan, who averaged four points a game off the bench before blowing a knee in February, can make a full recovery he’ll make four. Freshman guard Tim Quarterman (2.5 ppg), who was a disappointment this year (he shot 26.4 percent from the floor and as a point guard his 0.7 assists-to-1.1 turnovers per game ratio was alarmingly poor) will also return, as will Odo, Malone and Shane Hammink – who combined for a pitiful 10 minutes, two points and two rebounds a game between them – to back up the front line.

That means Jones will have to count on his recruits for major contributions if his team is going to get better next year.

Toward that end there is reason for optimism. The nation’s leading junior-college scorer, Lake Charles native Josh Gray of Odessa College, will be bringing a hefty 33.8 points per game with him to Baton Rouge, and the 6-1 Gray offers a bit more length for defensive purposes than the 5-9 Stringer did. Stringer’s lack of height made him a defensive liability, so perhaps Gray can add some badly-needed perimeter defense to an LSU team which desperately needs it. He did average 2.7 steals a game at Odessa. But for all of Gray’s scoring prowess, it might be overly optimistic to expect he’ll replace Stringer as the deadeye outside shooter on next year’s team. Gray shot just 30.8 percent from the three-point line in junior college, compared to Stringer’s 40.2 percent. He’s a very good penetrator and scorer inside, and he’ll get to the foul line a lot more than Stringer did, so Gray could well be a net positive over Stringer.

Keith Hornsby, who sat out this season after transferring from UNC-Asheville, might inherit the mantle of three-point bomber. Reports from the practice floor this year indicate the son of rock singer Bruce Hornsby was the best shooter on LSU’s roster, and as a sophomore at his former school he shot 37.9 percent from behind the line. Hornsby averaged 15.0 points a game at UNC-Asheville last year, with a shiny 92.5 percent stat at the foul line. Whether he can defend or rebound the way Coleman, who he’ll likely be replacing as a wing, did at LSU is a question – but he’s probably a better offensive player.

You could say Gray and Hornsby ought to be an improvement over Stringer and Coleman, and we probably wouldn’t argue all that much. But LSU has to replace O’Bryant, who is being projected as the first first-round pick from LSU since Anthony Randolph seven years ago – and that’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to do.

The fact is, O’Bryant doesn’t leave as big a void as one might think. Defensively he was average at best; he had trouble moving his feet and was beaten off the dribble routinely, and for his size and physicality it was a major disappointment to see him so often disappear as a rebounder. O’Bryant definitely gave the Tigers a good scorer in the post, and when he was on he was a dominant scorer in the post. But the rest of his game was often a head-scratcher.

To replace him, Jones is bringing in a seven-footer. Elbert Robinson, ranked by ESPN as the No. 6 center in the country and as the No. 51 player in the nation by Rivals, is 7-0 and 320 pounds. Robinson ought to give Jones a great deal more physicality in the lane, which will be greatly appreciated given than no LSU team in recent memory played softer defense than this year’s club. But 300-pound college basketball players don’t tend to have much in the way of conditioning, and tired players usually can’t defend without fouling. That would make Robinson a project, though perhaps one with lots of upside.

And that means if LSU is going to be appreciably better next year – as in, actually making the NCAA Tournament rather than getting boat-raced in the NIT second round – it’s going to depend on Mickey and Martin becoming full-fledged stars. Offensively, that’s foreseeable – Martin at times showed off some outside shooting this year and he’s quite good as an alley-oop recipient, and once in a while he’s pretty good driving to the basket when he’s not out of control, and Mickey has a nice collection of low-post moves and what could become a good mid-range jumper. But defensively, these guys have a very long way to go. Mickey had more blocked shots as a freshman – 106 – than anybody at LSU since Shaquille O’Neal, but even so he struggled to defend the dribble-drive and found himself out of position fairly constantly. And Martin was a defensive liability virtually the whole season, and almost nonexistent as a rebounder.

The point being that it’s not a done deal LSU will have an appreciably better roster next season than they had this year, meaning if the result is to be better Jones is going to have to coach up the players he has. And he’s going to have to get those players to do things which don’t take talent – move their feet on defense, for example, and take care of the basketball, shoot better at the foul line (and actually get to the foul line), block out on the boards, not commit stupid fouls. The 2013-14 team did none of those things particularly well.

If he’s not able to flip the lights on where those elements are concerned, we could likely see another underachieving team next year – after which a reasonable expectation would be that Mickey, Martin and Gray could all go pro. Jones has perhaps the top high school junior in the country committed in 6-8 Ben Simmons, and Simmons looks like a difference-maker in the LeBron James/Kevin Durant mold. But if he arrives after Mickey, Martin and Gray are gone one questions if an opportunity might be lost to really accomplish something in the one year he’ll be here.

In college basketball what you look for in a coach is the ability to generate substantial improvement in your players’ productivity, both from year to year and even within seasons, and the ability to get your team’s whole to equal more than the sum of its parts. Jones never really did that at North Texas, which is why though he managed to make the NCAA tournament twice he never had his team truly on the bracket-buster list a la Mercer or Harvard this year, and in two years at LSU he hasn’t been able to do it either.

That’s not a good sign. It indicates the frustration with this year’s mediocrity might only be getting worse as highly-rated recruits arrive to fuel a succession of teams which play .500 basketball after New Year’s Day and fail to make, or advance in, the Big Dance. And at some point when a coach can’t turn recruiting into results on the court the recruits will stop coming.

Meanwhile, that washed-up old man in Dallas could be building a monster. We saw a taste of it last night.

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