We can’t imagine the coach of LSU’s awful basketball team, immersed as he is in a 13-game losing streak which with one more loss added to it will tie the longest in school history, and mired in last place in a pedestrian (at best) SEC, will keep his job past the end of this season.
But twice in the last week we’ve heard from “in the know” sources that Jones’ fate is unsettled rather than hopeless.
LSU is currently 9-17 overall and 1-13 in the SEC. That 9-17 overall record isn’t the worst among Power 5 teams, but it’s close – Missouri, who is ahead of LSU by one game in SEC play, is 7-19, Washington is 9-18 and Oregon State is 5-23 at the bottom of the Pac-12, Oklahoma is 9-17 in the Big 12 and Boston College is 9-18 in the ACC. That means of the 64 Power 5 conference teams, LSU is one of the six worst – and of those teams, only Oregon State (1-14) has a worse record in their conference than LSU does.
And during the current 13-game losing streak only three of the losses have come by less than double digits – a four-point defeat at Auburn, a seven-point loss at Kentucky and an eight-point loss at home against Arkansas. The Kentucky and Arkansas losses came prior to Saturday’s 18-point loss at Alabama; it looked for a brief moment that Jones’ team was beginning to show a little life, only to go completely to pieces in the Bama game.
They’ve given up. They clearly no longer want to play for this coach.
It’s a fairly bad team, with only two kids on it who can credibly be called “quality players” – that being Antonio Blakeney and Duop Reath. Both are expected to turn pro after the season if Jones isn’t replaced, and neither, as it currently stands, will be drafted by NBA teams. Reath would likely be returning to Australia to start his pro career, while Blakeney would be destined for a slog through the NBA’s D-League if not perhaps heading off to Europe for a stretch. Beyond Blakeney and Reath you have Brandon Sampson, who in stretches shows off the makings of a decent offensive game and then quickly compensates for that with a flurry of turnovers and an aversion to defense, and a pair of freshmen in Skylar Mays and Wade Sims who have potential to rise above their current level of inadequacy (they’re decent athletes and sometimes show flashes of being good players, but neither defends or takes care of the ball and neither is much of an offensive threat).
Everybody else on the roster can’t play. This is what Jones has wrought in his fifth year at LSU. But even with the lackluster state of the roster, judgements about the talent must be suspended given the complete lack of chemistry, belief, hustle, desire, confidence and spirit the team has shown all season. They know they’re poorly coached and they expect to lose. One almost has to ignore their play based on the dark cloud hanging over the program and its effect on them.
There is no way Joe Alleva, LSU’s increasingly beleaguered athletic director, can justify another year of Jones in charge of this basketball program. What we’re told is that after this year Jones’ buyout will cost some $800,000, and that price tag scares the Powers That Be – this is an environment, after all, in which university president F. King Alexander continues to plead poverty to the Louisiana legislature where LSU is concerned, and Alleva just choked down almost $10 million for Les Miles’ buyout after firing him last September.
The problem with that reasoning is that Jones is a lot more expensive to have around than he is to fire.
That $800,000 would be due over two years. It costs $400,000 per year.
We’re told that LSU’s season ticket base for basketball is down to about 4,500 at present. From LSUSports.net, here’s a graphic showing ticket prices in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center…
As you can see, the median season tickets would go for $350 apiece, though one would suspect that the average season ticket revenue of the unsold seats is probably more like $250 (the price for tickets plus Tradition Fund donation for the light gray sections on that chart).
So the difference between the pathetic 4,500 season tickets LSU has sold right now, a number which would assuredly drop if Jones were retained, and something closer to the 9,200 or so the baseball program boasts as a season ticket base, is close to 5,000 tickets.
And at $250 apiece, that comes to about $1.25 million.
Don’t think for a second it isn’t possible for LSU to sell more than 9,000 season tickets, either. LSU used to sell 9,000 season tickets for basketball. Most of the SEC sells something in that neighborhood, and LSU has enough basketball fans, though admittedly most of them are latent rather than active given the pitiful state of the program, to run the season ticket number back into the realm of the average.
So they’re leaving more than a million dollars a year on the table by having a horrible coach and a horrible team.
If this isn’t addressed, they’ve also got a horrible athletic director whose continued employment also needs to be addressed. One could make the argument that’s already true of Alleva, but the situation with Jones is a test for him to pass. If he passes it by making a change and hiring someone who rates as an improvement and who can sell tickets, Alleva can make the case he’s addressed the athletic department’s overall decline this year with new coaches in football and men’s basketball and things are moving in a positive direction again under his tutelage. Whether that would be true or not will only be known with time, but at least Alleva will be able to make the argument.
But what is problematic is Alleva’s complete radio silence on the status of the basketball program. Amid a 13-game losing streak in the coach’s fifth year, it is unseemly for the athletic director to have nothing whatever to say. That comes off as a slap in the face to the paying customers who are treated to blowout losses game after game.
North Carolina State, which is 3-12 in the ACC and 14-13 overall, fired their head coach Mark Gottfried last week, though Gottfried will coach the rest of the season. Gottfried’s team is the one which came from 16 points down to knock off Jones’ 2014-15 team in the NCAA Tournament first round; that was Jones’ best team and the only one which has made it to the Big Dance. Last year in a preseason tournament in New York Gottfried beat Jones’ Ben Simmons-led team. And Gottfried also beat Jones in the race for the pink slips.
It would be a smart move for Alleva to make an announcement similar to the one NC State made with respect to Gottfried. There is no sense in naming an interim coach, but the fans deserve to hear that this season will be Jones’ last – and such an announcement would make Tuesday’s game at home against Auburn about the players rather than the coach.
It’s important that LSU win that game, for two reasons. First, the home game against Auburn is the last, best chance of actually winning a game before the season is over, given that Auburn only beat LSU by four in Auburn earlier in the season. And second, if Jones’ team can’t win that game the streak will extend to 14 games, which ties the longest schnide in school history. It would be nice if the PMAC wasn’t the morgue it’s been all season; the uncertainty about whether they’ll actually get rid of the coach is part of that, because there are lots of LSU fans who say they refuse to enter the building until Jones is gone. At this point a Gottfried-style announcement could only inject a bit of energy into the program.
And LSU basketball needs some sense of positivity. This is the worst basketball season in 50 years, and the idea nothing will be done about it – and that the athletic department won’t even publicly acknowledge there’s a problem – is unacceptable.