For weeks, Johnny Jones has tried to qualitatively describe the effect Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor’s midseason additions have had on his team.
Not a press conference goes by that Jones, prompted or not, talks about the return of Hornsby from a hernia injury that sidelined him through Dec. 13 or the addition of Victor, who became eligible Dec. 16 after transferring from Arizona a year ago. It’s almost as if the season, in Jones’ mind, has been divided into halves: pre-Craig-and-Keith and post-Craig-and-Keith.
“Both of those guys bring a sense of urgency and a sense of toughness,” Jones said this week. “Both of those guys display that. Not being the bad guy, but how hard they play and how they get after it. They do the dirty work and they don’t mind it. When Craig’s on the floor, he’s letting Ben know, ‘I got you. I can get the dirty work done down here.’ Your team needs that. We’re glad that Craig can provide it. It rubs off on your other teammates. Keith Hornsby diving on the ground and sliding into the baseline. Guys feed off of that.”
Those players have earned Jones’ praise, but it’s hard to quantify things like “sense of urgency,” “sense of toughness,” and “dirty work.”
So let’s try to quantify those things.
The easiest evidence is LSU’s record. With the two, they’re 5-1, with wins at Vanderbilt and against Kentucky. Without them, they’re 4-4, with losses at Houston (Hornsby played, but Victor didn’t) and College of Charleston. In a way, that speaks for itself.
As LSU started the season 4-4, Jones came under fire, and deservedly so. But there was, in this writer’s opinion, probably too much blame on Jones and not enough blame on Hornsby and Victor’s absences. Take away two starters from any college basketball team, and the results could be disastrous. Compound that several times for LSU, a team heavily reliant on freshmen and lacking a certain grit and edge in the absences of Hornsby and Victor.
The numbers – and the film – back Jones up.
Here’s look at LSU’s stats per 100 possessions with and without their duo. (The Houston game, in which Hornsby played but Victor did not, is included in the ‘without’ statistics, since, you know, Victor didn’t play in the game.)
|With Hornsby/Victor||Without Hornsby/Victor|
|ORTG (points per 100 possesions)||
|DRTG (points allowed per 100 possessions||
|Offensive National Ranking||
|Defensive National Ranking||
Essentially, LSU has a top 25 offense and a top 10 defense with the two. Without them, they’re offensively mediocre and, at 202nd nationally in defensive rating, defensively inept. The offensive dropoff makes sense, because without Hornsby, LSU doesn’t have a consistent three point threat (Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson are still feeling things out), and without Victor, they don’t have a post player who can shoot and bang.
But the defense is what stands out most. How do two players turn a 202nd ranked defense into a top 10 unit?
Talking to Victor, Hornsby, and Jones, the trend they all touch on for LSU’s drastic defensive improvements when the two are on the floor is communication.
“A lot of it is just presence and communication,” says Hornsby. “We’re always talking to people on the floor, and that’s what really helps.”
“Communication,” said Victor, asked what he looks to bring to the team. “Physicality. Doing all the dirty work. The small things great teams have to do to get wins. That doesn’t show up on that stat sheet. Communication, help defense, boxing out, that doesn’t show up on that stat sheet. But all great teams have those guys that do those small things. That’s what makes them great.”
When LSU was struggling defensively – giving up 100+ points in back to back games against North Florida and Houston – those things were missing. Their closeouts were late and sloppy. Their help side rotations were later and sloppier. The first line of defense (the guy guarding the ball) was unreliable, but not as unreliable as the second and third line of defenses (ball side help and backside help).
Victor and Hornsby have changed that, simply by setting a higher standard. They’ve led by example, and they’ve led by word, talking the talk and walking the walk. That was on full display against Kentucky.
Here, Hornsby and Victor are the bottom line of LSU’s defense, and absolutely smother the Wildcats. Victor is guarding Alex Poythress, but when Skal Labissiere, guarded by Ben Simmons, sets a ball screen, Victor rotates and covers Skal, while informing Ben to switch to Poythress. Then, Hornsby – who has been covering Poythress until Simmons can recover – closes out on Isiah Briscoe and forces Kentucky to reset.
None of that shows in the box score. It’s simply outstanding execution. Hornsby and Victor did their jobs.
“It’s more of our team defense that’s been able to step up and allowed us to become better,” said Jones. “They’ve done a better job of trusting each other in the way that they’ve played with a certain intensity level. Craig (Victor II) and Keith (Hornsby) have helped us because of their aggressiveness, mentality and the size and strength they’ve been able to play with. It’s allowed us to do some things a little bit differently defensively.”
They don’t just boost LSU’s team defense. Both are outstanding individual defenders. Here, Kentucky tries to start the second half by going inside to Poythress. The Tiger frontcourt dominated Kentucky in the first half, and Calipari wants to get his bigs going.
It didn’t work.
Earlier on the break, Hornsby 1) got into helpside, 2) told his teammates to stop ball, and 3) when they didn’t stop ball, took the charge.
Hornsby is one of LSU’s best at closing out shooters without getting beat on the dribble, too.
Of course, both players have a huge impact on LSU’s offense, too. Victor is the perfect partner to Simmons. He can step out to 17 feet and knock down jumpers, which gives Simmons tons of space to operate around the paint. Either can also be the post man or the passer in a high low action, which LSU loves to run.
Ben Simmons and Craig Victor's understanding https://t.co/IBggIv2B7G
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) December 21, 2015
The two have a palpable chemistry developed when Simmons was 15, Victor 16 at Adidas Nations camp in Miami, where the two were teammates.
“People don’t know that I knew Ben way before LSU,” says Victor. “To be out on the floor again with him is good. It is just a natural feeling and we are out there playing ball. When we got back together here, he and I had an instant connection on the floor. It’s like we never left Miami.”
Victor is also the team’s best screener, which is good for a guy like Hornsby, who is pretty good at coming off of them.
I’ve already detailed Hornsby’s two-man game with Simmons. One thing to add is how effective Hornsby has been shooting threes off the dribble this season. The unassisted three pointer is the toughest shot in basketball, but Hornsby’s mastered it this year, hitting a team best 25 percent of his threes without requiring at an assist, by necessity.
Unquestionably, Hornsby and Victor have improved LSU, who for weeks didn’t look like an NCAA Tournament team. Back to full strength, they’re well on their way to returning to the tournament for the second straight season.
“I’ve had to add that to my game,” said Hornsby. “A lot of teams are outright denying me the ball, so I’ve had to learn how to shoot flying off of screens and ball screens.”