Not to pour any more gas on the fire at LSU after the Les Miles debacle, but in case you haven’t paid attention to Johnny Jones’ basketball team they returned three starters, added a highly-rated recruiting class including two McDonald’s All-Americans – one of whom was the consensus top recruit in college basketball and is being considered as the top player in the nation even now – opened the season in the Top 25 and are now 4-4 after losing three of their last four games to teams ranked 134, 174, 88 and 163 in the RPI coming into Sunday.
And against North Florida and Houston, not exactly powerhouse teams, LSU has given up more than 100 points in each of its last two games.
With Wake Forest and Oklahoma still on the schedule, this team as things are currently going will lose six non-conference games. And that will make it impossible not just for LSU to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid, but to make the NIT.
Before losing to Houston LSU was sitting at 210 in the RPI. As things stand right now LSU can’t make the NIT.
With Ben Simmons on the team LSU can’t make the NIT. That’s where we are.
And this was the season Jones was building toward. He had recruited Simmons and Antonio Blakeney, another McDonald’s All-American, to go with a returning cast that included Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby, Josh Gray and Jalen Patterson, and added Top 40 national recruit Brandon Sampson and Arizona transfer Craig Victor, who may or may not become eligible on Tuesday to give the team some semblance of interior defense. That roster is what had given the basketball experts reason to believe Jones had a Top 25 team.
Before the Houston loss, SB Nation had a post wondering how Simmons could be so good and LSU could be so bad. The article was fairly polite about pointing the finger at Jones…
Jones’ LSU teams have a long history of underachieving, but this year was supposed to be different with the program’s best recruit since Shaq. If the Tigers don’t pick it up soon, this team will be the most disappointing yet. It’s unfair to pin all of that on Simmons.
That discussion is getting louder after last season, when with Hornsby, Quarterman, Jarrel Martin and Jordan Mickey LSU was all of a No. 8 seed and blew a 16-point lead to lose to NC State in the NCAA Tournament first round. That was a sizable underachievement which should have put Jones on the hot seat. And it followed a sizable underachievement two years ago when Jones’ shortcomings as a coach started to become obvious after just being suspect after his first year.
But of course, Joe Alleva, LSU’s embattled and likely soon-to-be-fired athletic director (after he had his legs cut out from undernearth him by LSU president F. King Alexander when he attempted to engineer Miles’ buyout and bring in Jimbo Fisher from Florida State to replace him, Alleva might very well be looking for another job in advance of getting the axe), hired Jones. And therefore unlike Miles, who he didn’t hire and has never gotten along with, Alleva has an investment in Jones. If anything, Alleva stuck his neck out to make that hire after another one of his men’s basketball hires, Trent Johnson, bolted for TCU in advance of getting run off after three straight lousy seasons.
The hiring process that produced Jones was a disgrace. It essentially involved a number of alumni from the Dale Brown days buffaloing Alleva into hiring an “LSU man” for the job, despite Jones’ resume containing precisely nothing that would recommend him as a superstar coach capable of building LSU Basketball into a national power. At the time Alleva blew a good deal of smoke about making a national search and delivering a program-builder of a coach.
Instead, he hired Jones upon the demand of Collis Temple, LSU’s first black basketball player and Baton Rouge’s warlord of AAU hoops. And outside of Martin and Sampson, plus a pair of recruits who have played high school ball at University High School on LSU’s campus, Jones’ recruiting has had a pretty small footprint in Baton Rouge over the five classes he’s brought in since taking the job.
In other words, after one measly one-and-done NCAA appearance in three years this was supposed to be Jones’ breakout year. And so far it’s the worst team of the four. So it’s very obvious he’s a failure at LSU.
You can bank on this next week featuring a national conversation about how Jones is ruining Simmons. If SB Nation got the ball rolling next week, that narrative is only getting louder now that he’s fallen to .500. And when that narrative starts rolling, guess what? That’s the end of your ability to recruit. Kids don’t want to play for a coach they think will ruin them.
We already saw the beginnings of that. LSU’s recruiting class for next year has five players in it. Two of them are JC transfers who coming into this year didn’t score in double figures on their JC teams (though both are playing fairly well this year), one is an Australian shooting guard nobody has ever heard of, one is a three-star 6-6 forward whose father played at LSU and one is a point guard who left U-High to play this season at Findlay Prep in Nevada and is the sole Top 150 player in the class. No McDonald’s All-Americans, no big names, no next generation superstars.
So if LSU is going to be relevant any time soon, it’s this year or bust. And what we have is bust, and lots of it. LSU has the worst RPI rating in the SEC at the moment, so there is no reason to believe that the current 4-4 record is going to improve when the opponents are Florida and Texas A&M rather than North Florida and Kennesaw State.
So this is a disaster, and Alleva is rightly going to get fired for it. And when he goes, what does his resume look like? He’s the AD who sold out the lacrosse program at Duke, he’s now got the reputation as the idiot who put Les Miles through the ringer for no reason, and he’s the bum who hired Trent Johnson and Johnny Jones to make the Pete Maravich Assembly Center a factory of sadness. John Brady might have been a walking migraine, but Brady went to the Final Four. LSU has won a grand total of one NCAA Tournament game since Alleva got the AD job, and that was in Johnson’s first year with a roster solely comprised of Brady’s players.
If you’re Alleva, you might need to undertake desperate measures to save your resume and avoid a forced retirement.
Namely, get rid of Jones. Right now. Hiring a new guy for next year is a no-brainer, because Jones isn’t going to a postseason tournament. But the bad news is the next guy will inherit a roster with no Hornsby, no Josh Gray, no Quarterman and no Simmons – and maybe even no Blakeney, because while he’s been terrible this season and that’s all but eliminated the possibility of his turning pro next year, what usually happens in cases like that is he’d transfer. And instead of those guys, you’ll have the program players and scrubs Jones has recruited, plus the role players on this team (Brian Bridgewater, Aaron Epps, Elbert Robinson, Sampson) who have stunk the place up. At that point it’s a substantial rebuilding job and 2-3 years before you can expect much.
But next year is next year. And while Alleva shouldn’t get to hire a third coach after the failure of his first two, an interim coach for this team can’t be worse than what LSU has now.
Is there a quality option on the staff now? Nope. It’s too bad Eric Musselman left after last year; Musselman had been an NBA head coach and would have been a major asset if Jones hadn’t ignored him. The current staff has a couple of good recruiters on it and Brendan Suhr, who was a career NBA assistant and coached with Chuck Daly a million years ago.
Suhr might be like Musselman, in that he knows enough basketball that if he got the job he could do something with this team. But the suspicion here is that what these guys need is a coach with some gravitas. And that’s why what Alleva really needs to do is go out and make a splash with a “name” coach – maybe somebody who coached successfully in the NBA.
Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks and Mike D’Antoni all fit that bill. None of them are working right now. So does PJ Carlesimo. For that matter, Steve Lavin and Herb Sendek, who were coaching prominent college programs last year and are now available, would constitute a clear improvement in practice and game coaching. Hire one of them, or someone like them, and load the new man up with incentives on a short-term contract.
A basketball coach who isn’t working right now, particularly a coach with NBA experience who might be interested in recharging his career, might well find the opportunity attractive. How often does a chance come along to coach a player like Ben Simmons?
And while we’re in the middle of the season, there is a small window available to re-boot on the fly. LSU plays a trio of games against weak opponents they should be able to beat before Wake Forest shows up for a game on Dec. 29, and then SEC play starts.
It’s not an ideal situation, but it could be worse. The current direction of the program is a nightmare. A new coach might be able to inject a little life into a team which has talent, and by the middle of January perhaps have them playing at a level commensurate with the Top 25 team they were picked to be. At that point it’s certainly a game of catch-up, but if a new coach can get the team hot by March they might be able to ride a strong SEC record and perhaps a run in the conference tournament into an NCAA berth.
After that, who knows?
Is that a long-term solution? Probably not. The best options for coaches to come in off the street will be older, or if they’re young enough to contemplate being at LSU past a short one-year hitch, like in the case of a Thibodeau or Brooks, a miracle turnaround at LSU would have them back in the NBA in no time.
But so be it. It doesn’t take a genius to see the horrendous product he’s put on the floor this year and realize Jones is finished at LSU, and there will be a new basketball coach out of necessity within a year or two. The question is whether it’s acceptable to waste a team a good coach could win something meaningful with, or to take a shot at fixing the problem.
Alleva, for his many faults, tried to bring a fix to a stale situation with LSU football. He had better be thinking about bringing a fix to a cratering basketball program. Time is short – for LSU and for Alleva.
UPDATE: To those of you who think it’s unrealistic to bring in an interim coach from outside the program, it happens in the NBA all the time.
The reason it isn’t done with college programs comes largely from recruiting. But LSU already has five players signed for next year; the interim coach doesn’t have to recruit at all. All he would have to do is, for essentially four months or so, take a team of 12 scholarship players and two walkons and turn them into the Top 25 outfit they were projected to be.
And if one or more of LSU’s boosters were willing to part with a million bucks to pay an interim coach for four months of work that didn’t include recruiting, where his team would play twice a week until postseason play instead of the 3-4 times a week NBA teams play, and travel would be confined to the Southeast until then rather than all over the country, and he’d come into a situation in which he had more talent than most of his opponents without a whole lot of pressure to win since this season is all but shot and for his trouble he’d be given a generous package of incentives that might even, say, double his salary if he went to the NCAA and actually did something once there…
In such a case the athletic department would risk nothing without reaping a major reward that can’t be foreseen now, and the coach would risk nothing since he’s being asked to essentially conduct a high-reward salvage operation. The only discussion of anything past April would come if this season were to work out in miraculous fashion; if so, maybe LSU would be stumbling into a Nick Saban for basketball, but if not then the coach would be giving up nothing other than his free time because he would have been sitting out this season as a head coach anyway.
Holding on to Jones for this entire season makes LSU the program Ben Simmons couldn’t even make relevant. Why would taking a flyer on an available veteran coach be such a risk given the wreckage Jones has made of this team?
UPDATE #2: As predicted, here’s Yahoo! Sports with an article entitled “So Far, LSU Is Squandering Ben Simmons’ Lone College Season.” Great publicity for the school.
Simmons chose LSU because his godfather David Patrick has been an assistant coach for the Tigers for the past three-plus years. He stuck with that commitment even though LSU underachieved the past two years with NBA prospects Jarrel Martin and Jordan Mickey on the roster, missing the 2014 NCAA tournament and narrowly sneaking into the field last season.
It’s possible LSU may underachieve again in Simmons’ lone season in Baton Rouge, but the silver lining for the Tigers is that there’s still time to fix these problems. They have four winnable home games ahead against Gardner Webb, Oral Roberts, American and Wake Forest before SEC play begins.
Nonetheless, LSU’s poor start has reduced its margin for error during the conference season.
Either the Tigers salvage their season by finishing in the SEC’s upper echelon, or Simmons will have to settle for being the highest scoring player in this year’s NIT.