By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
The last time we saw Antonio Blakeney, he was playing 36 minutes while running a 103 fever, a day after playing 40 minutes with a temperature just as high. Blakeney was so sick in the SEC Tournament last season that the team considered hospitalizing him after the Tigers’ season-ending loss to Texas A&M.
Ill as he was that day, it doesn’t even compare to the gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach this season, as he struggled to swallow a season in which his team missed the NCAA Tournament, despite sky-high preseason expectations.
Blakeney’s back in 2016-17, LSU’s returning leading scorer with 12.3 points per game as an SEC All-Freshman performer. He’ll look to take over as the team’s lead dog, using the last 11 games of the season — during which he averaged 18.6 points per game and hit the 30-point mark twice — as a springboard into his sophomore campaign.
Blakeney sat down with me for a few minutes Wednesday at LSU Basketball Media Day, chatting offseason work, bypassing the NBA, and coming back stronger in 2016-17.
Cody Worsham: What was your focus this offseason, as far as improving your game?
Antonio Blakeney: Working on my ball handling and my playmaking ability.
CW: Last year, you played off of other guys. Are you looking to be more of a creator this year?
AB: Definitely, definitely trying to be more of a creator, finding my teammates and my own shot in different ways.
CW: How different does it feel this year?
AB: It definitely feels different this year. Last year we had a little more hype, stuff like that. It’s all good.
CW: What’s the advantage of being more under the radar?
AB: We can fly under the radar, work hard, and every game, go out and give teams our best shot.
[su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]”Every game matters, and every team’s good. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Charleston. It doesn’t matter who it is, because every team is going to give you their best shot, and you never know — one day, your shots might not be clicking and their are. You have to get up for every game the same way. You can’t get up for Kentucky and not get up for Wake Forest. Each game, you have to be hype, same level.” – Antonio Blakeney on lessons learned from his freshman year [/su_pullquote]
CW: The way last year unfolded, how does that serve as motivation for this year?
AB: It’s a lot of motivation, especially for the guys who came back. You know how it feels to be on that end of the stick, not playing in the tournament, not playing in any postseason. It definitely gives us motivation.
CW: That last game, you played with 103 fever. To lose like you guys lost, 71-38, even though you weren’t 100 percent, what kind of taste does that leave in your mouth during the offseason?
AB: A bad taste. The last time I played in a game with an LSU uniform, we got beat by, like, 45, or whatever the case may be. Just trying to give that pressure to the next team. Our first game is against Wofford, so just trying to apply the pressure to them and make them feel our pain.
CW: You declared early, I was thinking you would go work out with some teams, maybe come back, maybe go. What made you pull the trigger so quickly to come back?
AB: Just being honest with myself. I never even found out if I would’ve made the combine, never even planned any workouts. Just being honest with myself, I knew I needed to work on more things, get my body right, work on my ball handling more, and keep getting up shots. Just trying to be honest with myself.
CW: You started off the season as the third or fourth option, but you were able to come on late. Now that you’re the lead guy for this team, does that change your approach?
AB: No, I’ll prepare the same. Last year, I prepared very well, I worked very hard on my own and in practice, so I’ll try to do the same thing. I think my struggles in the beginning were more just me putting too much pressure on myself. Now, I’m just relaxing and going out with that same drive every day. I think I’ll be fine.
CW: Now that you’ve done it — averaging around 20 points over the last 11 games, scoring 30 a couple of times — does it make it easier to relax?
AB: Definitely. I’ve been through it once. I know what it takes to win. I know what it takes to lose, as well.
CW: What’s the biggest thing you learned last year?
AB: Every game matters, and every team’s good. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Charleston. It doesn’t matter who it is, because every team is going to give you their best shot, and you never know — one day, your shots might not be clicking and their are. You have to get up for every game the same way. You can’t get up for Kentucky and not get up for Wake Forest. Each game, you have to be hype, same level.
How ready are you for this season to start?
AB: I can’t wait. It couldn’t come any slower right now. I wish it could be tomorrow. But I think we need this time to keep getting better. But I definitely can’t wait.