Player attrition continues to be an issue for the LSU men's basketball program.
When center Justin Hamilton made his surprising announcement Thursday that he was forgoing his senior season at LSU to pursue a professional career, it marked the second year in a row unexpected departures turned positions that looked strong on paper into positions where Tigers coach Trent Johnson has to scramble to come up with an improvised plan.
If the 7-foot Hamilton came back next year, LSU would have had a formidable front line returning with Hamilton, a second-team all-SEC pick this season, and 6-9 sophomore Johnny O'Bryant, both returning starters. Johnson would have had to recruit big men primarily for depth (departed seniors Storm Warren and Malcolm White were the top two options off the bench) and eventual replacements for O'Bryant and Hamilton.
Now, Johnson's faced with either having to land a big man capable of replacing Hamilton's production (12.9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game) or he could choose to alter LSU's approach, perhaps playing with four guards surrounding O'Bryant, which would allow him to recruit big men who would primarily be looked at, in the short term, as O'Bryant's backups.
It's similar to what happened last spring. LSU appeared to have depth returning on the wing, but both Aaron Dotson (Utah) and Matt Derenbecker (Dayton) transferred, leaving the Tigers woefully short on the perimeter. LSU resolved the issue by moving 5-9 point guard Andre Stringer to shooting guard, making the Tigers small on the wing. The move worked because Stringer proved to be less of a defensive liability than one might expect from a 5-9 shooting guard and Anthony Hickey, who replaced Stringer as the starting point guard, had a stellar first season at LSU, making the SEC's all-Freshman team.
Hickey, a Kentucky Mr. Basketball, was an under-the-radar prospect who didn't choose LSU until May 3, well after the start of the late signing period. If LSU is to land a player who will, like Hickey a year ago season, help redefine the Tigers' outlook, it might have to be another late-arriving, under-the-radar prospect. The signing period begins April 11.
One could envision a lineup that includes Coleman, Hammink and returning starter Ralston Turner, giving LSU a trio of 6-6 wings to complete a lineup that would also include Hickey and O'Bryant. Johnson hinted at this possibility in his season wrap up news conference, noting that LSU would emphasize adding athleticism and quickness.
On the other hand, the Tigers could go with a conventional two-bigs lineup, but they would need to either land an impact big man in recruiting - someone that may, or may not be out there - or they would have to see vast improvement from either Eddie Ludwig, a 6-9 senior, or 6-8 junior Jalen Courtney. Both Ludwig and Courtney have spent time playing small forward and power forward and neither brings an imposing physical presence.
Another possibility would be the continued development of 7-2 walk-on Andrew Del Piero, a former LSU band member with little basketball experience who played sparingly as a junior.
With Hamilton leaving, LSU has five scholarships to give, so if there is an impact big man, there will be a scholarship for him. The only available 2012 big man who has publicly expressed an interest in LSU is 6-9 Norvel Pelle, a prep schooler from California who was highly recruited in high school in 2011, but wound up an academic casualty after he backed out of a commitment to St. John's. He enrolled in a prep school in California.
Pelle's AAU coach told an Iowa State fan website that Pelle had LSU among his suitors this time around. But there has been little evidence of interest from either side aside from that.
As for Hamilton, he'll test the NBA waters, but is more likely headed for Europe. He'll graduate at the end of the spring semester then get married in the summer. As a 7-footer with a decent perimeter game, he could probably make good money overseas if he doesn't find his way to the end of an NBA bench.
As for Johnson, his LSU teams have missed the NCAA tournament for three straight seasons after he won the SEC and earned SEC Coach of the Year honors at the end of his first season. If his LSU career ultimately fails, one can look at constant premature attrition as a primary cause. See below.
Lettermen who have left LSU prematurely under Trent Johnson
2009 - Freshman forward Delwan Graham (dismissed from team, finished career at Jacksonville)
2010 - Junior guard Bo Spencer (dismissed from team, finished career at Nebraska), Sophomore G-F Zach Kinsley (walk-on lettermen, finished career at Texas A&M)
2011 - Sophomore F Dennis Harris (left team in middle of the season, transferred to Arkansas State, now at NAIA Campblesville), Sophomore G Daron Populist (Walk-on letterman, transferred to Southeastern La.), Senior C Garrett Green (transferred to San Diego State), Sophomore G Aaron Dotson (transferred to Utah), Freshman G-F Matt Derenbecker (transferred to Dayton).
2012 - Sr. C Justin Hamilton (pursuing pro career).