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LSU wasn’t that great last year, and now they don’t have Ben Simmons

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Will the Tigers play defense in 2016-17?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Louisiana State vs Texas A&M Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Going into 2015-16, LSU had increased its win total in each of Johnny Jones’ first three seasons, improving from 18 to 19 wins in his first year, then 20 wins in his second year and 22 wins and an NCAA Tournament trip in 2014-15. And they had just added the nation’s top recruit.

What could go wrong?

Well, actually, a lot went wrong.

LSU opened the season ranked 21st in the AP poll, but that didn’t last very long: Before New Year’s, the Tigers lost to Marquette, NC State, Charleston, Houston, and Wake Forest. For those keeping score at home, those were, respectively, the 7th-place team in the Big East, the 13th-place team in the ACC, the 7th-place team in the CAA, the 3rd-place team in the AAC, and the 14th-place team in the ACC.

LSU did so much damage to their NCAA Tournament hopes in November and December that even an 8-2 start in SEC play — which included an 18-point beatdown of Kentucky and a near-miss against then-number one Oklahoma in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge -- was just barely enough to get LSU into the NCAA Tournament conversation (Over at Anchor of Gold, it became a running joke that ESPN consistently pumped up LSU’s tournament chances in spite of the obviously iffy resume, simply because they really badly wanted to see Simmons in the NCAA Tournament).

But that didn’t last, and LSU lost 5 of 8 to finish the regular season before ending their season with a hideous, 71-38 loss to Texas A&M in the semis of the SEC Tournament.

A season that started with Final Four hopes ended up with LSU declining an NIT bid (and it’s not even clear that LSU would have been invited.)

The reasons were pretty obvious, and in hindsight it should have been clear from the beginning. LSU couldn’t guard anyone. After posting the SEC’s 3rd-best defensive efficiency in 2014-15, the Tigers dropped to 11th in 2015-16, and almost all of that drop-off can be traced to the loss of Jordan Mickey.

LSU went from allowing 44.7 percent two-point shooting (good) in 2015, to 54.7 percent (terrible) in 2016. The three teams in the conference with worse defenses than LSU were all undersized; that wasn’t an issue for the Tigers, who had five players 6’9” or taller on the roster. But three of those were buried deep on the bench, and neither Simmons nor Craig Victor were really shot-blockers. The presence of Simmons meant that LSU could score with just about anyone (4th in the SEC in offensive efficiency), but they bled so many points at the other end that they were outscored in conference play.

The other issue that should have been apparent from the start: LSU had a really short bench. In SEC play, the Tigers only had seven players who averaged more than 10 minutes a game, and Simmons averaged nearly 36 minutes per game. That’s actually been a recurring issue for LSU under Jones: in 2014-15, LSU had four players averaging over 33 minutes per game.

For all the talk of Jones’ recruiting prowess, it’s mostly been bluster. Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey (2013), as well as Simmons and Antonio Blakeney (2015), were highly-rated. But those signings have seemed to be much more about simply bringing in the guys with the highest star rating possible rather than focusing on team needs or any sort of a coherent basketball philosophy; Martin and Mickey both essentially played the same position, and the signings around the stars have largely seemed to be at random. Jones has shown that he can recruit five-stars, but can’t seem to find quality depth or even role players to fill in around them. It’s a “stars-and-scrubs” model that usually doesn’t work very well.

And there’s more of that this year: aside from not bringing in a star, Jones mostly brought in a bunch of guards and wing players to play on a team whose strength (at least on paper) appeared to be... guards and wing players. LSU does have some big men on the roster, and one in the recruiting class, but only one of them (the aforementioned Victor) is a guy whom Jones has felt comfortable playing in the past. It’s just really hard to figure out the strategy beyond chasing stars, and this year LSU didn’t even do that on the recruiting trail.

That said, though LSU lost a lot of production with the graduation of Keith Hornsby and the departures of Simmons and Tim Quarterman to the pros, there’s still some talent here. But our contributors don’t see it amounting to much: the consensus pick for LSU was a tie for 11th, with a high of 9th and a low of 13th. Personally, I have them picked 9th, but it’s not really difficult to see how this could fall apart. Because even if the players are as good or better than advertised, are they going to play any defense?

Backcourt

LSU Backcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Keith Hornsby 30.4 13.1 2.9 1.6 1.2 1.3 2.0
Tim Quarterman 28.8 11.2 4.6 3.6 1.6 1.0 2.9 Declared for NBA Draft
Josh Gray 15.5 5.4 2.1 1.8 1.4 1.0 0.7
2 Antonio Blakeney 6’4” 197 SO. 0.9941 30.8 12.6 3.5 0.9 0.8 0.7 2.7
11 Jalyn Patterson 6’1” 191 JR. 0.8441 22.0 4.7 1.4 1.6 0.8 1.2 1.0
0 Brandon Sampson 6’5” 193 SO. 0.9780 13.2 4.0 1.2 0.8 0.6 0.4 0.3
4 Skylar Mays 6’4” 205 FR. 0.9098
5 Kieran Hayward 6’4” 195 FR. 0.8359
10 Branden Jenkins 6’4” 180 JR. 0.8578 Transfer (Lee College)

LSU caught a break when Antonio Blakeney decided to pass on the NBA for another year. The 6’4” sophomore from Orlando made the All-SEC Freshman Team, and after getting off to a slow start, he averaged 14.2 ppg in SEC play and shot 37.7 percent from three-point range. That included scoring 20 or more points in 6 of LSU’s last 11 games of the season.

And now, with Simmons gone, Blakeney could easily see his scoring average jump to 20 a night as he becomes the focal point of the offense, because the Tigers don’t have a lot of proven scorers. It’s not clear who will start alongside Blakeney at the point. Jalyn Patterson, a 6’1” junior from Alpharetta, Georgia, is the incumbent after starting 15 games as a sophomore. Patterson had a solid, if unspectacular, freshman season where he emerged as a steady hand in contrast to the erratic Josh Gray. But last year, Gray became less erratic (though he also played less) and Patterson really couldn’t build on his freshman campaign.

So now it’s not clear if Patterson will get the bulk of the minutes at the point or if one of a pair of newcomers will take the job. Branden Jenkins is one of two transfers from Lee College in Texas, where he averaged 15.6 ppg and 3.5 apg as a sophomore. Skylar Mays, a 6’4” freshman from Baton Rouge, has good length and quickness and he has the potential to be a good defender on the perimeter. Mays and Jenkins are probably both better described as combo guards, but either one might give LSU a more dynamic option at the point.

Johnny Jones frequently went with a three-guard lineup last year, so either Brandon Sampson or Kieran Hayward could see playing time at the third guard spot. Sampson, who was a four-star recruit out of high school, averaged 22.1 minutes per game in LSU’s first 11 games last season, then disappeared off the face of the earth, playing 114 minutes -- total — over LSU’s last 22 games.

But Sampson did show flashes early on, scoring 18 points in games against McNeese State and NC State — which was more than his point total in LSU’s entire 18-game SEC schedule. But with Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby gone, Sampson could see more minutes as a sophomore.

Kieran Hayward, a 6’5” freshman from Australia, is a good leaper and has a pretty shooting stroke, and could be an energy guy off the bench for the Tigers.

Frontcourt

LSU Frontcourt
# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Ben Simmons 34.9 19.2 11.8 4.8 3.4 0.8 6.0 Declared for NBA Draft
Darcy Malone 7.3 0.8 1.3 0.2 0.7 0.1 -0.1 Transfer (CS-Fullerton)
32 Craig Victor II 6’9” 235 JR. 0.9836 26.9 11.5 5.6 0.8 1.2 0.6 1.7
3 Elbert Robinson III 7’1” 290 JR. 0.9771 9.3 2.4 2.0 0.3 0.8 0.3 0.1
21 Aaron Epps 6’10” 220 JR. 0.8143 9.1 3.8 1.8 0.2 0.5 0.3 0.7
20 Brian Bridgewater 6’5” 282 SR. 0.8658 8.0 2.2 1.6 0.2 0.6 0.3 0.2
1 Duop Reath 6’10” 235 JR. 0.8828 Transfer (Lee JC)
44 Wayde Sims 6’6” 222 FR. 0.8663

For a team that had a lot of size, LSU didn’t defend the paint very well in 2015-16. In SEC play, LSU ranked last in the conference allowing opponents to shoot 54.7 percent on two-pointers; they also ranked last in the conference in block percentage.

Duop Reath, another transfer from Lee College, might be helpful in that regard. The 6’10” junior from Australia blocked 2.5 shots per game in his sophomore year at Lee; he also averaged 14.6 ppg and 8.4 rpg. But just shoring up the defense in the paint would be extremely helpful, regardless of his offensive contributions.

Craig Victor became eligible at midseason after transferring from Arizona and had an immediate impact, scoring in double figures in each of his first six games and in 19 of the 25 games he played in. But it wasn’t terribly efficient scoring: Victor shot just 46.1 percent on two-pointers.

LSU also has three players who have been in the program for a couple of years and haven’t played all that much in Aaron Epps, Elbert Robinson, and Brian Bridgewater. Epps scored in double figures five times in November and December, then ceded most of his playing time to Victor, but he has size and some semblance of a step-out game. Robinson has size but hasn’t been able to stay on the floor much when he’s played; both Epps and Robinson have been foul-prone. Bridgewater posted the highest block percentage on the team, but only played 37 minutes total in SEC play.

Wayde Sims, a 6’6” local product and the son of former LSU player Wayne Sims, is a good leaper and could develop into a good rebounder and shooter, but is not very polished. He’s the high school teammate of guard Skylar Mays.

Schedule

LSU Basketball Schedule
Date Opponent Time (CT) TV
11/7 Reinhardt (exhibition) 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/12 Wofford 1:00 PM SEC Network+
11/15 Southern Miss 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/18 North Florida 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/23-25 Battle 4 Atlantis
11/29 Houston 8:00 PM SEC Network
12/13 North Carolina Central 8:00 PM SEC Network
12/17 Texas Southern 5:00 PM SEC Network
12/19 Charleston 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/22 at Wake Forest 8:00 PM ESPNU
12/29 Vanderbilt 8:00 PM ESPNU
1/4 at Missouri 8:00 PM SEC Network
1/7 Mississippi State 2:30 PM SEC Network
1/11 at Texas A&M 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/14 Alabama 2:30 PM SEC Network
1/18 at Auburn 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/21 at Arkansas 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/25 Florida 8:00 PM SEC Network
1/28 at Texas Tech 1:00 PM ESPNU
2/1 South Carolina 8:00 PM SEC Network
2/4 Texas A&M 8:00 PM ESPNU
2/7 at Kentucky 8:00 PM ESPN
2/11 Arkansas 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/14 at Ole Miss 8:00 PM SEC Network
2/18 at Alabama 2:30 PM SEC Network
2/21 Auburn 6:00 PM SEC Network
2/25 at Georgia 5:00 PM SEC Network
3/1 Tennessee 6:00 PM SEC Network
3/4 at Mississippi State 5:00 PM SEC Network

LSU’s nonconference schedule is very similar to its nonconference schedule last year, including a lot of the same opponents. They’ll open the Battle 4 Atlantis with Wichita State, followed by either Louisville or Old Dominion. Michigan State, St. John’s, Baylor, and VCU are also in the field, so LSU should face three pretty tough games there. Although there’s only one true road game on the schedule before New Year’s, this could be a pretty tough nonconference schedule.

In SEC play, LSU gets Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi State, Auburn, and Texas A&M twice each. That could be tough with Auburn and Mississippi State potentially improving. And with five of the last seven SEC games on the road, they could be set up for a late-season fade.

Outlook

It’s hard to know what to make of LSU. On paper, the Tigers have some talent: Antonio Blakeney is getting attention from NBA scouts, though it was probably a smart move for him to return to school for his sophomore year, and he should become the focal point of the offense. Craig Victor posted good numbers according to traditional stats, but efficiency-based metrics don’t like his low shooting percentage.

It’s easy to write off the Tigers: they went 19-14 and missed the postseason last year; they lost Ben Simmons, Tim Quarterman, and Keith Hornsby off that team, and the newcomers aren’t all that highly rated. Could this be a Ewing Theory situation? It fits the criteria: star player (Ben Simmons) gets an inordinate amount of media attention, team doesn’t accomplish anything with him, and then he’s gone and the media and fans are writing the team off.

So make the case for LSU: Blakeney could be an All-SEC player averaging 20 points per game; Victor, now that he’s not competing with a star player who plays the same position, shines in his new role; Jalyn Patterson takes over at the point and reverts to being the steady hand he was during his freshman year; Duop Reath, or one of the holdovers in the paint, provides shot blocking and solidifies the defense. Maybe one of the freshmen (Mays? Hayward?) steps up in a big way to provide another scoring option.

But that’s a lot of things that have to go right, and as a result this is a make-or-break year for Johnny Jones. Some were surprised that he didn’t get fired after last year, but he’s back at the helm and has the chance to prove what he can do with this roster. And he’d better, or else he probably won’t be back for a sixth year.