EXTRA: The Undeniable Optimism of Johnny Jones

Editor’s note: This is the cover story of our Basketball Preview from the latest edition of Tiger Rag Extra, currently on newsstands across Baton Rouge. Find a copy by clicking here

By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

On the first day of practice, Johnny Jones gathered his players at center court of the LSU practice facility and spoke in quiet, hushed tones.

This was not a grave moment. This is simply Jones’ default. He is not loud. He is not boisterous. He is not prone to exaggeration. He can sell, sure, but in private moments, when his players gather close, listening intently, no matter if it’s the season’s first workout or the final timeout of a tie game in the first game of the NCAA Tournament, he is uncommonly calm. Understated, even.

Which is why what he said next was, in no uncertain terms, incredible.

“Practice today,” Jones told his charges, “like you’re preparing for the national championship.”

Coachspeak? Sure. Every coach wants his players to picture cutting down the nets, come April. Every coach wants that image to motivate his players in October, when the schedule seems a distant mirage to a collection of teens and early-20s athletes. Check championship talk off the list of go-to coaching clichés, just behind percentages exceeding 100 and physical impossibilities like “running through walls” or “playing one’s heart out.”

And maybe the distance from the huddle to the small horde of gathered media – much smaller than the contingent from a year ago – watching from the observation deck above the court muffled Jones’ words. Maybe they bounced off the gym walls, and played an acoustical prank on skeptical ears. Maybe the softness of Jones’ tone masked what he really said, a secret only for his players’ ears, and those ears listening from above superimposed meaning where none was to be found.

Does it matter, either way? If LSU basketball taught us – the media, the fans, the casual observers – anything last year, it’s that perception and reality don’t always coalesce in Johnny Jones’ world.

That can work in his favor, like when he inherits a team perceived to be a middling SEC player with occasional dreams of grandeur, and then produces, in reality, two top five recruiting classes in his first three cycles. Or when he arrives at a program struggling to half-fill the PMAC, and transforms it into one with lines of fans wrapping around the gym, waiting to get in. Or when his hiring is questioned, by critics, as a sort of nepotism, his 91-88 career record in the Sun Belt used as evidence, and he in turn churns out the best four-year SEC start of any coach in school history, by a wide margin.

It’s a double-edged sword, though. Jones has done much to raise expectations in four years, and little to meet them. The talent he’s attracted conjures hopes of championship contention, but LSU hasn’t approached that threshold, yet. The 2014-15 squad finally broke the postseason barrier, earning an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but lost its tourney opener in heartbreaking fashion. The 2015-16 squad, abundant in talent and promise, looked Sweet 16 bound, but failed to qualify for any postseason play at all.

Both, in their own ways, were a sort of microcosm of Jones’ tenure so far at LSU – raise the bar from the outset, but fail to meet it at the end.

The narrative surrounding Jones in 2016-17, however, begins, for the first time since his arrival, from a place of skepticism. The perception is that his team, absent three departed pros and featuring a host of unproven talent, will struggle to match even last year’s disappointing output.

The reality? It remains unseen. But in Jones’ undeniably optimistic eyes, there’s only one destination in sight.

 

IT’S HARD TO say what kind of basketball coach LSU fans want. Lord knows they’ve sampled from a wide variety.

The modern era of Tiger hoops starts with Press Maravich, a veritable basketball junkie who inherited a cellar-dweller and, with the help of his offspring, breathed life into the hoops program.

But Maravich bristled when he couldn’t transform LSU into a basketball school. Even in Pete’s heyday, hoops took a backseat to football, and Press wasn’t a backseat kind of guy.

Enter Dale Brown. What Maravich possessed in pure basketball acumen, Brown boasted tenfold in enthusiasm and showmanship. Brown relished both the role of the underdog and the art of the sale, and for 25 years, he sold Baton Rouge on basketball. But his tenure ended unceremoniously. After years of battling the NCAA, Brown left LSU in the wake of NCAA violations, handing his successor a program on probation.

John Brady was gruff and fiery, a tougher-than-nails defensive mind who took over in tough times and navigated the program through probation and back to the NCAA Tournament. He recruited and delegated well, and his best teams mirrored his grit – none better than the 2006 Final Four squad that banged the blocks and guarded the shorts off of its opponents. And yet Brady’s personality clashed with his higher-ups, and when the wins came in less frequent occurrences, he was quickly canned.

His replacement, Trent Johnson, was as polar an opposite to Brady as could be possible. A West Coast liberal intellectual who had led both Nevada and Stanford to deep dances, Johnson was prone to dozens upon dozens of halfcourt sets that slowed games to a snail’s pace. He struggled to recruit, and he struggled even more to generate fan interest. If attendance figures are ample evidence, his brand of basketball was boring, and if winning percentages are ample evidence, his brand of basketball was ultimately unsuccessful.

Which brings us to Jones. If Maravich was tactical, Brown zealous, Brady gritty, and Johnson academic, the word that best suits Jones is optimistic. Only an optimist could leave a program in the wake of NCAA violations, as Jones did in 1997, and dream of one day returning as its head coach. It takes an optimist to patiently wait in Denton, Texas for seven seasons for that job to open, only to be rejected, as Jones was when Joe Alleva hired Johnson in 2008. Only an optimist of the rarest and highest degree could wait another four seasons for that job to open, and interview for it yet again.

When Alleva finally pulled the trigger on Jones four years ago, it was exactly Jones’ optimism that a program mired in mediocrity, at best, required. And his love, too. LSU basketball was then, and usually is, a program that requires a special sort of keeper, one whose affection and expectations for it are borderline excessive.

Jones has that, something he learned playing for and coaching under Brown, whose most important lesson to Jones was “being committed to the program.”

“It’s such an important brand,” Jones says. “And then the family unity that he preached all the time, I think it goes hand in hand. When you’ve got the family unity, the chemistry with your team seems to come together well, because everybody is fighting for a common cause. And that’s for LSU to win.”

By historic standards, LSU has won plenty under Jones. His 40 SEC wins through his first four seasons are the best in school history – twice Brady’s 20, 15 more than Johnson’s 25, and 14 more than Brown’s 26.

But so far, he’s yet to plant his flag in any sort of memorable way. Press had Pete. Brown had a pair of Final Fours. Brady had one, as well. Even Johnson won an SEC title and an NCAA Tournament game.

Four years in, Jones’ legacy is still in limbo – not that he’s particularly concerned.

“I don’t worry about those things,” he says. “I know what I’d like: I’d like for us to be playing at a championship level. I want to make sure the guys who have an opportunity to put on that uniform now understand the importance of it and what it means, trying to leave their legacy – especially the guys who have an opportunity to play here. When it’s all said and done, I’ll have an opportunity to look back. Right now, we’re in the middle of it. My thing is to make sure each player who comes through here, we try to develop them to be the best they can possibly be. If we’re able to do that at a high level, everything else has a tendency to take care of itself. You look back on your career when it’s over, and if you’ve done those things, I think some great things can be written.”

 

THE QUESTION IS, can Jones stick around long enough to establish that legacy? In the knee-jerk Twitter era, coaching tenure is rarely attained. Big picture thinking is restricted to 140-character takes at a time, and that’s not a world Jones, prone to offering long answers to short questions, can thrive in on a short leash.

Last year’s failures, in the eyes of many, has that leash shorter than before. Even with the 2016 NBA Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, all-everything freshman Ben Simmons, the 2015-16 Tigers failed to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.

As painful as the result of the season was the nature of it. LSU stumbled out of the gates to a 7-5 start in the non-conference, but, buoyed by the return of injured senior sharpshooter Keith Hornsby and crafty sophomore forward Craig Victor, raced out to a 9-3 start and possession of first place in SEC play. That seemed to be enough to get LSU into the tournament, but a final injury to Hornsby proved to be the team’s death knell. A 3-5 finish to the year left LSU with little to show for the brief Ben Simmons era, and the final loss – a 71-38 SEC Tournament blowout to Texas A&M – did little to help Jones’ cause.

That, at least, is the pessimist’s view. Jones is not a pessimist.

Take, for example, that final game. Some coaches might print that score out, hang it in his players’ lockers during the offseason, an ever-present motivational reminder.

Jones has another approach. He doesn’t pay attention to it, at least not in the larger context. The word ‘lose,’ literally, is not a part of his vocabulary. He prefers the term ‘setback,’ which connotes a one-time obstacle to be overcome, and overcome quickly.

“The last game, it’d be like paying attention to Oklahoma’s last game in the Final Four against Villanova,” he says. “They lost by 30 or 40 points. The score’s not indicative of the type of team Oklahoma was all year. They had an off night. You chalk it up as that, and you move on.”

Jones has other numbers he prefer to dwell on. He can recite, almost as if from memory, every highlight of LSU’s 19-14 season.

“A lot of positive things happened with the team last year,” he says. “We got everybody’s best shot. We didn’t go into any situation where people didn’t think we were capable of beating them. We got everybody’s best shot, everybody was prepared for us. With that, we still finished on the positive side, winning 19 games and finishing in the top three of our league. To be the highest drawing team in the conference on the road says a lot about this team. On top of that, we had the third largest increase in attendance last year, at home.”

And that’s good. But, remember that double-edged sword? More fans means more eyes, and more eyes means, when things go wrong, more critics.

National pundits who’d paid little attention to LSU before blamed him solely for the Tigers’ failures, fair or not. Local fans who’d paid little attention to basketball before joined. The criticism came in droves, and Jones understands it.

“We want our fans to be passionate about what we do,” he says. “They play such an important role. Their attendance last year – averaging over 11,000 at home last year, the third-largest increase in the country – I thought that propelled us and helped us go 8-1. So it means something. Our job is to make sure we try to satisfy our fanbase and win as much as you possibly can. As long as they know that we’re playing as hard as we possibly can for them, and we care about them, at the end of the day, they understand. And they respect that nobody wants to win more than those guys out there in the uniforms and the coaches on the sideline. So we understand, and we hurt with them when we have setbacks.”

 

THE PERCEPTION IS that LSU will be down in 2016-17.

How could they not be? Simply put, the talent is down from years past. Jones’ tournament team at LSU had four players on NBA rosters this fall: Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin, Tim Quarterman, and Keith Hornsby. Last year’s squad had three: Simmons, Quarterman, and Hornsby.

Antonio Blakeney could eventually be the fourth, and perhaps the only one from this year’s squad. The former five-star freshman averaged just over 12 points per game last year, but increased that average to nearly 19 over LSU’s last 11 games. He flirted with the idea of the NBA, entering his name into the draft briefly, but withdrawing before working out for any teams.

“What I like most about it, he had the maturity about him to do that,” says Jones. “He knew that another year may be beneficial to him, so he came back. The way that he’ll look at this team is that he can have the impact of being the leader of the team, and that means something to him.”

Blakeney’s earned that right. He showed he has the chops to be a lead dog late in his freshman year. As much of the team cracked under the pressure of last season’s collapse, Blakeney thrived. When other teammates ducked questions from the press – or ducked interviews altogether – Blakeney held himself and his team accountable.

Jones has done the same this offseason. At his last press conference of the season last year, he called the season-ending loss to A&M “embarrassing” and accepted full responsibility for the team’s shortcomings. He’s begun the 2016-17 season with similar talk – at least, as much as his natural inclination to see the positive in things will permit.

“There was a lot of winning,” he says. “Just not enough. We all certainly felt the sting of that. That’s something we want to get corrected and move on forward from last year.”

And what, exactly, is forward? In previous seasons, it was clear: win more. Jones did that: 19 wins in year one, 20 in year two, and 22 in year three. His teams moved from eighth in the league, to sixth, to third. Here, then, is the regression. To use a Jones term, the setback. The first time his team failed to improve on the season prior.

“We’ve got to get back into a national tournament – preferably, the NCAA Tournament – for us to continue moving forward,” he said. “We were so close last year…The one thing we didn’t do was check the box to be in the NCAA Tournament.”

Checking that box this year will be a challenge, to say the least, but it would reap massive benefits. It would restore faith in Jones across the entire fan base. It would solidify security in a job he’s long coveted, and still loves. It would add an immovable building block to a fluid legacy. It would validate his instructions from the season’s first practice, proof that his team listened when he quietly urged them to prepare for a championship in a season where, from the outside, that seems like an unlikely destination.

That, of course, is the only sort of destination an optimist desires.

“Educating kids, graduating kids, having people standing outside in line waiting to get into games, our fans being passionate, creating an environment, all of those things have happened,” Jones says. “We’ve taken recruiting to another level. Now, we’ve got to culminate that with winning championships. We’ve come really close. We were only a game or so from being conference champions a year ago. We got to the semifinals of the conference tournament last year.

“We feel like we’re getting close. We just have to keep climbing.”

SEC Record in First Four Years by LSU Coaches

LSU Coach First 4 Years SEC Record Percent
Johnny Jones 2012-2016 40-32 .556
Trent Johnson 2008-2012 25-39 .391
John Brady 1997-2001 20-44 .313
Dale Brown 1972-1976 26-46 .361
Press Maravich 1966-1970 29-43 .403
Jay McCreary 1957-1961 14-42 .250

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