The NCAA Tournament selection committee was kind to Johnny Jones and his LSU basketball team.
The Tigers, thought to be on the NCAA bubble after an inexplicable choke in the SEC Tournament against an upstart Auburn team who managed to beat LSU twice among only 14 wins this season, actually ended up well-embedded into the tournament field. They’re a #9 seed in the East Regional, facing North Carolina State Thursday night in Pittsburgh. The winner of that game takes on, in all likelihood, #1 seed Villanova on Saturday.
What the selection committee saw is what LSU’s fans have seen all year. Namely, that LSU might not have any depth to speak of and they might be a schizophrenic team on the border of psychosis – how the same team who could go 13-5 against RPI Top 100 teams, including wins at West Virginia and Arkansas, a sweep of Ole Miss and the closest loss to Kentucky of anyone this year could also lose twice to Auburn and once to Mississippi State, Missouri and Clemson – they’ve got a high ceiling.
If Jones’ team had been able to sustain their “A” game for any length of time they wouldn’t be 22-10 and a #9 seed. They’d be 27-6 (we’ll stipulate a likely loss to Kentucky in Nashville over the weekend if they’d beaten Auburn) and probably more like a #5 seed.
Some of the poor play and underachievement is structural. LSU has no depth, and late in the season that becomes a real problem. For example, look at Jordan Mickey. For the season, he’s averaging 15.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, but since a 20-point, 11-rebound effort in a blowout win over Tennessee on Feb. 14, his performance has fallen away in a major way. In LSU’s last seven games Mickey has failed to meet his season averages in points or rebounds in any of the six games he played in (Mickey sat out the Arkansas game with a sore shoulder). Against Auburn in the SEC Tournament he was completely ineffective, scoring just one point and failing to make any of his four field goal attempts before fouling out late in the game. He’s got a sore ankle to go with the shoulder and he’s not the same player who dominated the Tigers’ opponents for most of the season, and there’s a reason why. He’s spent. Mickey didn’t play less than 29 minutes in any SEC games prior to the one he missed, he’s played 37 or more minutes in 14 games this season and for the season he’s averaging 34.8 minutes a game.
As a post player in the SEC standing 6-8 and 225 pounds, Mickey is being asked to absorb a tremendous pounding and it has worn him down. Perhaps he can rally against NC State and return to form; without him LSU isn’t really an NCAA Tournament team. They pulled a big upset at Arkansas with him on the sidelines, but the Auburn game turned into a disaster when he fouled out.
And some of the other minutes-per-game numbers are just as bad or worse than Mickey’s. Jarrell Martin is playing 35 minutes a game. Tim Quarterman, whose game has collapsed since posting a triple-double in a Feb. 28 win over Ole Miss, is playing 33.4 minutes a game. And Keith Hornsby, who interestingly seems to be playing better than anybody on LSU’s team, is actually playing 35.5 minutes a game.
You can’t ask the core of your team to play that many minutes without getting lapses in play during a game and flat-out poor performances at times late in the season. There just isn’t that much gas in a player’s tank.
The lack of depth comes from two sources. First, LSU has five post players on its bench who can’t play and second, they’ve got only four scholarship guards on the whole roster. Jalyn Patterson and Josh Gray are playing respectable minutes – 24.3 and 25.2 per game, respectively – but there is nobody behind them who can soak up 10-15 minutes a game and give Hornsby and Quarterman more of a break. And the post players on the bench who can’t play are the cause of Martin and Mickey combining for 70 minutes per game. Between Darcy Malone, John Odo, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps and Brian Bridgewater LSU has gotten only 129 points (only four per game) and 105 rebounds (3.3 per game) in 607 minutes (19 per game). One player adding those numbers together would be considered a marginal contributor at best; LSU has to combine five players off the bench for those numbers. What that means is they can’t pull Mickey or Martin out of the game to settle them down when they’re not playing well, or give them a break, or respond to foul trouble, and get a similar level of performance for even a few minutes at a time. They’re instead going to essentially play four on five while Mickey or Martin is out.
Jones needed one of the five scholarships he spent on depth behind Mickey and Martin to pan out into a quality player. Robinson, it was hoped, would be able to start for this team this year (he was, after all, a national Top 50 recruit with offers from Georgetown and Ohio State among others). But he’s played in only 11 games and his conditioning is a sizable problem even after losing some 60 pounds since last spring. At best, he’s a year away. Epps, at times, looks like he might be a player who could supply decent minutes off the bench but his defense is atrocious. Bridgewater’s body style – he’s listed as 6-5 and 265 but might not be that tall – prevents him from being much of a contributor since taller players block his shot and beat him on the boards on a constant basis. He has some game, but he doesn’t jump or move well and it seems he has a low ceiling as a college hoops player. Odo has been at LSU for three years now and has never shown much of the potential it was thought he had when he led the JUCO ranks in rebounding and was second in blocked shots. And Malone, who has seen more minutes than any of the others, is shooting under 40 percent on the season and scoring under one point per game. Right now Bridgewater and Malone, who combined for about 15 minutes a game, are the only two who are in the regular playing rotation.
That compounds a problem created when Jones lost three veteran players – senior point guard Anthony Hickey and junior wing players Malik Morgan and Shane Hammink – from last year’s team. Hickey and Jones never got along and he managed to finagle a release to Oklahoma State, where he is playing this year and will see his first NCAA Tournament action. Morgan transferred to Tulane, while Hammink went back to Europe. Any one of the three would have made a difference this year, even Hammink – who played little in the first two seasons he spent at LSU but would likely have played in front of Bridgewater and could easily have seen 15 minutes a game.
There is some good news. While LSU is stretching to play eight players in its normal rotation, the two likely opponents on the way to the Sweet 16 don’t generally overwhelm with depth. NC State plays eight players, though all eight play at least 17 minutes a game, and Villanova also plays eight, with all eight averaging 14 minutes or more. Those numbers indicate better depth than LSU but not overwhelmingly so – though the playing time difference between their core people and LSU’s is stark. Villanova’s point guard Ryan Arcidiacono leads their team with 30.4 minutes a game and he’s the only one above 30.
For NC State, lead guard Trevor Lacey averages 35.6 points per game while his backcourt mates Ralston Turner (who played two years at LSU before Jones arrived on campus) and Anthony Barber both average just above 31 minutes per game. But both teams rotate their post players considerably more than LSU does – NC State uses four post players and a 6-7 wing equally on their front line with each of the five averaging between 17.5 and 19.3 minutes a game and 3.4 and 6.7 points a game.
And for Villanova, the eight players in rotation include five guards – Darrun Hilliard, Josh Hart, Arcidiacono, Dylan Ennis and Phil Booth – who average between 14 and 30 minutes a game and three post players who average 26, 24 and 19 minutes.
Neither team has a post player as prolific as Mickey and Martin are, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the two could dominate and lead LSU into the Sweet 16. On the other hand, NC State and Villanova both have bangers who are stronger and more physical than Mickey and Martin. NC State’s four post players go 6-9 and 300, 6-9 and 230, 6-8 and 245 and 6-8 and 230, while Villanova’s three post players are 6-11 and 245, 6-7 and 235 and 6-6 and 255. Both teams can be expected to beat on Martin and Mickey and engage them in a brutal, physical game LSU hasn’t done well in.
Getting points in transition and speeding up the game is what LSU will want to do in both games. Whether they’ll be able to is a question nobody can answer. LSU is a complete mystery heading into Jones’ first tourney appearance as a head coach in Tigertown.