By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Practice around the LSU basketball facilities has been a bit more spirited in the week’s leading up to Monday’s season-opening exhibition against Reinhardt.
Antonio Blakeney is making sure of that.
Blakeney was boarding a plane for Nashville with teammate Brandon Sampson, bound for SEC Media Days last month, when Johnny Jones broke the news: the media they would soon chat with had picked the Tigers to finish 12th in the 14-team SEC.
“I was mad when I saw it,” Blakeney said. “I felt disrespected. I didn’t even get to sleep on the plane.”
The role of sleeper is one Blakeney and his teammates have to embrace this year. With No. 1 NBA draft pick Ben Simmons gone, along with sharpshooting senior Keith Hornsby and current Portland Trailblazer Tim Quarterman, expectations are low for LSU, despite the fact that only Kentucky has finished above the Tigers in each of the last two seasons in SEC play.
Blakeney, meanwhile, was picked second-team All-SEC — an honor to some, but not to LSU’s sophomore scorer, who averaged 12.6 points per game a year ago, the most by a freshman since Ronnie Henderson in 1993-94.
“I don’t want to be second in anything,” said Blakeney. “I definitely don’t agree with it.”
Rather than let the prognostications take the air out of their tires, however, the Tigers are allowing it to fan their flames. Blakeney said the first practice after media days was “intense,” and the rest of the sessions since haven’t dropped off.
“It’s helping us work harder, because they didn’t give us that accolade at the top,” he said. “Some people might get it at and be lax. We have no room to be lax. What we did last year wasn’t what we wanted to do, and this year they’re not giving us any respect.”
“The way you respond to it is big,” Blakeney added. “It’s just disrespect at the end of the day. Being an underdog, being picked number one, whatever it is, last year we were picked number four — you have to go out there and do it. Okay, so they picked Kentucky to be the number one team in the SEC. Now, they have to go out there and be the number one team in the SEC. If you’re an underdog, you have to go out there and prove yourself. Everybody has the same mindset. Just because Kentucky got picked number one, that doesn’t mean Coach Cal is not in practice on his players. We all have to go prove it. We can possibly go prove we are number 12. We have to prove what we want to do.”
BACK IN ACTION
LSU will get its first chance to prove itself on Monday, in an exhibition against NAIA program Reinhardt. Tipoff is at 7 pm in the PMAC, and admission is free.
It won’t be the first unofficial action of the year. Though Jones could not disclose the foe, per NCAA rules, sources said the Tigers took on Tulane on Saturday in a closed scrimmage, and said LSU built a large lead before pulling its veterans. The younger players apparently struggled through rookie mistakes to hold on to that lead, but Johnny Jones was pleased with the opportunity to get tape in front his team’s eyes.
“I think it’s a great asset to have quality film against good competition and to evaluate your guys,” he said. “It’s really good for them because the game doesn’t count but at the same time I think it’s very competitive because one the coaches are getting back out there and the officials are doing the same. Then the kids, especially the new guys are getting a feel for Division One style of basketball for the first time.”
One of those new guys was freshman wing Kieran Hayward, who has had an impressive offseason and has shown the ability to knock down shots and get to the rim in practice. Hayward said it was good to get his college career under way, even if it was behind closed doors.
“That first game, I was really excited,” he said. “It was a good game to just get it all out there and move on. Nothing different from practice. I just need to work on all aspects of my game and put it all together.”
Jones said he was pleased overall with his team’s showing, particularly on the offensive end.
“I liked that we were still able to put up some points,” he said. “We have guys who can make baskets and our athleticism shows. Defensively we showed in some spots that we’re very capable in some areas, but there are certainly some places where we have to improve.”
Jones pointed to Hayward and fellow freshman Wayde Sims as guys who could make an impact early. Sims has worked both on the wing and on the block. The former 2A MVP and Gatorade Player of the Year did his damage in high school as a post player, and while he’s extend his game to the perimeter in the offseason, Jones thinks he can help out inside, too.
“The good thing about Wayde is he has a really high basketball IQ,” Jones said. “We’ve started him on the inside and put him on the perimeter and he’s really picked up the plays really quick and it’s not surprising. I think what’s really good for him is he’s learned both spots. He’s a good defender and he plays with good leverage and is tough inside. He’s probably the player with the most flexibility for us right now on the inside.”
Sims looked sharp in Wednesday’s practice, scoring in double figures in LSU’s live session, which consisted of about a half of basketball.
VICTOR OUT INDEFINITELY
Craig Victor, LSU’s presumed starter at the 4, didn’t play in Saturday’s scrimmage, with an injury that kept him out of practice until Tuesday. But it’s another issue that will keep the junior big man out for the start of LSU’s season.
“He won’t take floor for us on Monday and actually he will be out our first couple of games because of team rules in place that you have to abide by and he failed to do that,” Jones said. “But (Craig) is certainly back on track now and is taking care of his responsibilities and we look forward to him being back on the floor soon.”
Look for Victor to be back in the fold before Thanksgiving, when LSU head to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they’ll take on Wichita State in their tourney opener on Nov. 23. Aaron Epps will likely start in Victor’s absence.
PROJECTED STARTERS VS. REINHOLDT
1: Jalyn Patterson
2: Antonio Blakeney
3: Brandon Sampson
4: Aaron Epps
5: Duop Reath