While many LSU fans will have their attention turned to the football team’s game in Arkansas Saturday, the basketball team will begin their season at noon against Gardner-Webb the same day. LSU is coming off their third consecutive winning season. They finished 20-14 last season after losing to SMU in the second round of the NIT. Here’s a look at what to expect this year.
This LSU team will have a different look from what we’ve seen the last few years. Only two starters, forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, have returned from last season. The team’s leading scorer, Johnny O’Bryant, left early for the NBA while veteran play maker Anthony Hickey transferred to Oklahoma State and sharpshooting guard Andre Stringer graduated. While the loss of O’Bryant certainly hurts, it should be mostly offset by the increased production from Martin and Mickey in expanded roles.
Martin is an athletic and versatile player who can man both forward positions. He averaged 10.3 points on just over 47 percent shooting from the field and 4.6 rebounds while getting most of his time at small forward. Mickey may have been LSU’s best player in 2014, and one of the most underrated players nationally. He was second on the team with 12.7 points per game and averaged a team-high 7.9 rebounds. His 3.2 blocks per game led the SEC. He would probably be a lottery pick in the NBA draft if he were two inches taller.
Replacing the starting back court of Hickey and Stringer will be a couple of transfers. Junior college recruit Josh Gray will fill the void at point guard. Gray led all junior college players with 34.7 points per game and also averaged nearly six assists. Keith Hornsby, a transfer from North Carolina at Ashville, will start at the shooting guard spot. He averaged fifteen points per game in his one season with the Bulldogs.
That leaves one starting spot up for grabs, and whoever holds it will likely be situation based. Head coach Johnny Jones likes to run a fast-paced style, so he’ll probably opt for speed over size and go with a three guard lineup most of the time. Sophomore Tim Quarterman would seem to be the favorite for the final slot. Quarterman played sparingly in 2014, but did flash some potential. He is a skilled ball handler and at 6’6″, he doesn’t sacrifice a lot of size to small forwards he might match up against.
The Tigers last qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2009. It’s been a bit of a rough going since then, especially when they looked like they were Tournament bound last season and faded at the end. Their chances of returning to the big dance largely depend on two factors: improving their defensive play and winning on the road. LSU allowed over 71 points a game in 2014, which ranked 210th in the country. On a more positive note, they did rank in the top 30 in both blocks and steals per game. They should get better defense from the new, bigger back court. While Stringer and Hickey could make plays on the defensive end, they were both under six feet tall, so taller opposing guards could simply shoot over them if they weren’t getting steals. The Tigers won just three road games last year, and their frequently sputtered away from home.
LSU does have a few things working in their favor. Their top talents are returning (Martin and Mickey are currently among Chad Ford’s list of 100 best NBA prospects), a rarity in college basketball, and their schedule is very manageable. The SEC has not been a very good conference in recent years, and it looks like that will continue in 2015. Number seven Florida (twice) and number one Kentucky are the only preseason top 25 teams LSU will face. Their non-conference schedule is even lighter, and the only road games they play out of conference are at UAB and West Virginia. However, this also means LSU has little margin for error. The tournament selection committee tends to value strength of schedule, perhaps more than they should. The Tigers will have to take care of business against their presumed inferior opponents because they won’t have many chances to atone if they slip up.
If LSU can take advantage of their favorable schedule and improve on their shortcomings from last season, there is a very real chance they will be making some noise on the basketball scene for the first time in a long time.