It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: LSU.
Last season, Johnny Jones recruited the No. 1 pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft, Ben Simmons. The Australian superstar mingled with Shaq as the buzz in Baton Rouge grew and a fan base penned a new mantra.
The Tigers, who also added top-15 recruit Antonio Blakeney and returned solid pieces, were back.
And then, they were done. Not even one-and-done. Just done.
Jones couldn’t lead Simmons and Co. to the NCAA tournament in a subpar field that found room for Michigan, Vanderbilt and Syracuse. Jones couldn’t mold a team led by the top pick in this summer’s NBA draft into a program worthy of at-large consideration.
Some will argue that Keith Hornby’s injuries derailed the season. That’s a fair concept. But the Tigers lost to Houston, Wake Forest and Alabama with Hornsby.
The Tigers missed the NCAA tournament. The Tigers failed. It’s that simple.
Any preseason analysis of LSU’s 2016-17 campaign must start here. Any projections about the future of a coach, who makes $1.5 million per year on a deal that expires after the 2018-19 season, entering a critical season must start here.
Jones will pursue success without Simmons, Hornsby and Tim Quarterman. His 2015 recruiting class featured three top-50 preps. But he did not sign any top-100 prospects to his 2016 class. A successful stretch last season would have helped Jones boost future recruiting classes. Instead, the program wasted a chance to use 2015-16 as a new foundation for the team and Jones.
The only good news in Baton Rouge is Blakeney’s return. The freshman thought about testing the NBA waters. But he ultimately chose to play another year at LSU. Good decision for him. Better decision for a team that needs him.
"After consulting with my coaches and with my family, I have decided to return to LSU for my sophomore season,” Blakeney said in a statement. “I believe I can further improve my skill set in different areas to become even more effective for my team in the future. Although I finished the year strong and posted a solid season, I think it is in my best interest to return and continue to improve as I strive and prepare to be the best I can be. This will also allow me to continue with my schoolwork and continue to move forward on my college degree."
Last season, Blakeney averaged 12.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. He also made 33 percent of his 3-point attempts and 75 percent of his free throws. He needs another year. And LSU needs him. The Tigers will lose four of their top six scorers from a 19-14 squad. They didn’t meet expectations, but they still boasted the personnel to compete with the best teams in the SEC and beyond.
Now, they’ll turn to Blakeney, an average recruiting class, Craig Victor (11.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG), Jalyn Patterson (4.7 PPG) and Brandon Sampson (4.0 PPG). But Blakeney, who finished with a 7.7 percent turnover rate (13th) is the new catalyst for a program that needs one.
They’ll attempt to turn Blakeney and Victor into a productive inside-out combo. That’s feasible. That’s also the only promising component of a program that entered last season with lofty goals.
"Johnny has our men's basketball program heading in the right direction," LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said in a statement after the school extended Jones’ contract in 2014. "On the court, his uptempo style and the energy in which his teams play is something that is appealing to our fans and is attractive to recruits.”
Alleva said that just two years ago, which feels so distant for a program that squandered a rare opportunity last season and created the current uncertainty surrounding the program as 2016-17 approaches.